Biden and Trump step up their fight for older voters

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“Donald Trump is simple — not a joke — you’re expendable. You’re forgettable. You’re virtually nobody. That’s now he sees seniors,” Biden said in a speech at a community center for seniors in Pembroke Pines, during which he wore a mask the entire time.

He later added, “The only senior that Donald Trump cares about — the only senior — is the senior Donald Trump.”

Trump is hardly conceding the group to the Democratic nominee. His campaign Tuesday debuted a television commercial seeking to make the case that the president is a stronger advocate for seniors’ interests.

The ad suggests that the “far-left health-care plan” embraced by Biden and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) could threaten private insurance. Biden has proposed enacting a public insurance program that would be optional.

Trump also made a pitch to seniors at his own rally in Sanford, Fla., on Monday — his first return to the campaign trail after his recent hospitalization — and he filmed a recent video aimed directly at older Americans.

With three weeks left before the election and early voting already underway in many states, a fierce battle is underway for seniors, who turn out in high numbers and hold the potential to swing a close election. Biden and Trump — both septuagenarians — are competing for support from Americans of their own generation at a moment when a pandemic that disproportionately kills older people has upended daily life and voting across the country.

Trump, 74, was the oldest president at his swearing-in, and Biden, 77, would claim that title if he wins in November. Both are seeking to cast the other as out of touch with the needs of his fellow seniors, and they have questioned each other’s physical and mental preparedness for the job.

But as both candidates stress their own vigor and youthfulness, they have rarely played up the notion that they are senior citizens.

The power of seniors is especially pronounced in Florida, the largest battleground state, where voters 65 and older made up 21 percent of the electorate in 2016, according to exit poll data. Trump carried Florida seniors by 17 percentage points en route to a slim victory in the state.

Polls show Trump’s advantage has eroded sharply this time around, providing a potential opening for Biden to flip a must-win state for the incumbent, as many older Americans are unhappy with Trump’s response to the pandemic and have responded to Biden’s moderate, traditional brand of politics.

A September Washington Post-ABC News survey in Florida found Trump with a small advantage over Biden among likely voters 65 and older, 52 percent to 44 percent. A New York Times-Siena College poll in the state found the race between the two even tighter, with 47 percent of Florida seniors for Biden and 45 percent for Trump.

Susan MacManus, an expert on Florida politics and a professor emerita at the University of South Florida, said anecdotal signs suggest the drop in support for Trump among older women has been especially steep. “They don’t like his tone, and I think the debate did a little bit of damage,” she said.

Older voters may not necessarily blame Trump for the pandemic, she added, but many are frustrated with the state of affairs. “They are worried about how all this plays with their kids and grandkids,” McManus said.

Recent polls also show a tight race overall in Florida, with Biden scrambling to shore up support among Latino voters, who have been frustrated by the former vice president’s uneven outreach in the state, even as he makes inroads with seniors.

If Biden captures Florida, it would put Trump’s pursuit of an electoral college majority in serious jeopardy. Biden is wagering that Trump’s response to the pandemic, both rhetorically and in his administration’s actions, will help him seal these gains at the ballot box.

His Tuesday speech reflected the stark contrast Biden is trying to draw, as he made a direct reference to Trump’s contracting the coronavirus. Trump tested positive after months of playing down the threat and flouting or dismissing public health recommendations, including making fun of Biden for wearing mask while rarely doing so himself.

“I prayed for his recovery when he got covid,” Biden said of Trump, referring to the disease caused by the virus. “I had hoped at least he’d come out of it somewhat chastened. But what has he done? He’s just doubled down on the misinformation he did before in making it worse.”

Trump has continued to regularly disregard the advice of public health officials calling for Americans to wear masks in public, and he has claimed that he received a “cure” for the virus, a description of his treatment that is rejected by medical experts.

In an apparent reference to Trump’s push to keep the economy from shuttering, Biden added, “So many lives have been lost unnecessarily because this president cares more about the stock market than he does about, you know, the well-being of seniors.”

Biden made his pitch personal at points, asking, “How many of you have been unable to hug your grandkids in the last seven months?”

He also pointed to comments that Trump has made saying the virus “affects virtually nobody,” although at least 214,801 people have died and many more have become seriously ill. Trump at the time was arguing that young people had largely been spared, and that elderly people with medical conditions are the group it “really affects.”

Biden added that Trump’s move to strike down the Affordable Care Act is an affront to seniors, who benefit from the law’s expansion of preventive coverage under Medicare. The Democrat also accused Trump of imperiling Social Security because of his plan to permanently end the payroll tax that funds it.

Trump has been making his case in a different way. In contrast to Biden’s carefully prepared speech Tuesday, the president released an unscripted video address on social media last week aimed at seniors.

“To my favorite people in the world — the seniors. I’m a senior; I know you don’t know that. Nobody knows that. Maybe you don’t have to tell ’em, but I’m a senior,” Trump said in the video, which he posted on Twitter.

He claimed “tremendous progress” fighting the coronavirus, even as some states hit new seven-day average highs of cases. He vowed to make the treatment he received, and other medications and therapies, available to seniors.

“You’re not vulnerable. But they like to say ‘the vulnerable.’ But you’re the least vulnerable. But for this one thing, you are vulnerable. And so am I,” said Trump, who told seniors they would get the same treatments he got free of charge, though it is not clear how or if he could do that.

Trump has pushed the Food and Drug Administration to quickly approve coronavirus antibody treatments such as the one he received. But that effort faces an uncertain future, and one of the companies manufacturing a drug Trump used said it would have a very limited supply over the next few months.

At his rally Monday, Trump made another appeal to seniors, arguing that letting in too many immigrants and giving them government benefits would threaten Social Security and Medicare.

“We have to take care of our people first. And if they let that happen, you would be decimating Medicare and destroying your Social Security,” Trump said. “While I’m president, no one will touch your Medicare. No one will touch or hurt in any way, shape or form your Social Security.”

In a statement Tuesday, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh responded to Biden’s comments by accusing him of “playing politics with people’s lives over the virus” and said that “Trump has accomplished more in 47 months than Biden has in 47 years.”

John Wagner and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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