The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Older voters may turn out to be the Democrats’ 2020 heroes

Nancy Kleinberg, 74, joins a group of older voters at Lisa Goldstein’s garage in Newtown Square, Pa., last month to help campaign for Joe Biden and other Democratic candidates. She’s been volunteering 50 to 60 hours a week. (Mark Makela for The Washington Post)
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NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. — Lisa Goldstein's garage never closes. Loyal Democrats can collect campaign literature, postcards, door drops and turf maps whenever the mood strikes. It's an election convenience market. Today, on the last Friday in September, she even offers apples and Tastykakes.

At age 59, “I’m the young one in this group,” says Goldstein, a child psychiatrist, in her “Nevertheless, she persisted” T-shirt festooned with a semicircle of political buttons echoing an RBG collar. (How this crowd mourns the late justice.) Each week, as many as 60 older volunteers appear at Goldstein’s stone ranch house in suburban Philadelphia to talk shop and help elect Joe Biden president. A pandemic and precarious knees won’t thwart them.

Americans 65 and older vote the way some people wish the entire country voted: regularly, passionately and in huge percentages, the largest of any age group. (Goldstein belongs to the second-most committed bloc.)

They are no-excuse, this-is-what-democracy-is-all-about voters. Four years ago, 71 percent of them cast ballots. They vote like their legacies depend on it.

“We have the time, and we don’t have as much life left to live,” says Bob Mulliken, 80, a retired mental health counselor in nearby Wayne, who is making calls, writing postcards and traveling door-to-door for Democrats up and down the ballot. “I do what I can to make sure that my children have a noble life.”

It’s been two decades since the party’s presidential nominee won the bulk of older voters. That would be Al Gore, whom political scribe Michael Kinsley once described as “an old person’s idea of a young person.”

The Biden campaign hopes to end that drought. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll shows the race for this demo is tight: 49 percent of likely voters over 65 supported Biden, compared with 48 percent for President Trump. Four years ago, Trump won those voters over Hillary Clinton.

Plenty of attention has centered on young activists’ and voters’ role in a Biden win. But, quite possibly, it may be older “super-voters,” religiously participating in every election, who become the Democrats’ 2020 heroes — even in a pandemic where they are the ones most at risk.

These voters are not a young person’s idea of an old person.

They include zeitgeist diviner Jane Fonda, 82, and her repeated arrests for climate change. Not to mention baby boomers, around 10,000 of whom turn 65 every day, swelling the nation’s older population by more than a third in the past decade.

Many of them marched against the Vietnam War and for racial and gender equality and gay rights. They smoked cannabis before their children and grandchildren knew what it was or fashioned it into gummy bears. They lived through Richard Nixon.

Four years ago, Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes, as anyone here can tell you. But a September Washington Post-ABC poll found that Biden had a 54 to 45 percent edge among the commonwealth’s likely voters. It also found that Biden supporters 65 and older here were nearly three times as likely to be “very enthusiastic” about the candidate than those under 50.

Vigorous turnout in Philadelphia’s populous, increasingly Democratic suburban counties are critical to a Biden win in Pennsylvania, vast swaths of which are acutely red.

The seven political states of Pennsylvania

Trump, 74, and Biden, 77, happen to be the two oldest candidates to secure their parties’ nominations. Biden is a man who utters “malarkey” without irony. His cherished wheels are a 1967 Corvette. That car, incidentally, is only a few years younger than his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.).

Older voters prefer Biden in a few national polls. He’s been in politics as long as many of them have been voting. They tend to like him more than they did Hillary Clinton.

These voters are a huge, engaged voting bloc in battlegrounds like Pennsylvania, where 26 percent of registered voters were older citizens in 2018, according to the Census. And did we mention they love to vote? Though they represent about 17 percent of America’s adults, they’re 25 percent of its registered voters.

“It’s not so much a get-out-the-vote effort with seniors as much as getting them to vote for your candidate,” says Richard Fiesta, director of the Alliance for Retired Americans and a member of the Seniors for Biden Council.

Among Biden’s older Pennsylvania supporters is former Republican governor Tom Ridge, 75, who was George W. Bush’s secretary of homeland security. “My first vote for a Democratic candidate for president of the United States,” he wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer recently, and he urged “my fellow Pennsylvanians to join me.”

“From what I’ve seen, younger voters don’t do a hundredth of what I do,” says Nancy Kleinberg, 74, who always voted but wasn’t politically active until after the 2016 election, when the former nursing home administrator and owner cast her vote for Hillary Clinton. She says, “I went to the polls with my daughter and my granddaughter and said, ‘This is going to be historical.’ We were right — but in the wrong way.”

Weeks later, she started organizing. She hasn’t stopped since, working 50 to 60 hours a week for Biden and other Democratic candidates.

“Democracy’s fragile. By not knowing anything, I contributed to Trump’s winning,” Kleinberg says.

In interviews with two dozen older Democratic Pennsylvania voters, they voiced concerns far more sweeping than the presumed twin priorities of Social Security and Medicare: economic inequality, Black Lives Matter, the environment, the courts, the Affordable Care Act, women’s rights, gay rights, the pandemic. (They also willingly and proudly stated their ages and upcoming birthdays.)

“My generation doesn’t have a lot to be proud of,” says Harry Bryans, 74, a retired lawyer. “The commonweal is really threatened,” he says, using an archaic term for the public welfare. “If we fail in this — keep going down this path — there’s no turning back.”

Vinton Fisher, 86, a retired consultant in public policy management, says of Biden, “We know him. I like the empathy he shows and the caring.”

They are emphatic, sometimes unprintable, in their scorn for Trump. They believe he takes them for granted, especially during the pandemic when their age group is most at risk.

“Trump is the biggest insult to aging. He thinks older people are low-hanging fruit,” says retired psychotherapist Andrea Shapiro Temko, 69, in an RBG T-shirt and skinny black jeans.

During July and August, 11 nursing home residents died every hour nationally because of the pandemic, according to a recent congressional report co-written by Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.). Residents and staff account for 40 percent of all the nation’s covid-19 deaths.

“Trump just never talks about it. It’s just bizarre,” says Casey, 60, who grew up blocks from where Biden was raised in Scranton. “James Carville taught me a lot of things when I worked for him. People vote when they have a stake in the election.” Older voters “have the long view,” he says.

Scranton became shorthand for the past. Its reality is more complicated.

Last year, Democrats in Delaware County, where Goldstein’s garage is located, took control of local government for the first time since forever, the Civil War, when the Democratic Party was an entirely different entity.

This was due, in no small part, to older voters and volunteers, unfettered by jobs and young children. Kleinberg lives in Narberth, in very blue Montgomery County, so she adopted Delco, as it’s known in these parts. In 2018, she served as finance director for state Assembly candidate Jennifer O’Mara, who is less than half her age — and won.

In a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, 52 percent of likely voters over 65 supported Biden, compared with 47 percent for Trump.

Typically on political campaigns, paid staffers have been out of college four months; the volunteers, four decades. Fifty-eight percent of poll workers in the 2018 general election were over 60. Because of the coronavirus, a swarm of younger citizens has volunteered to take their place.

Diane Simon, 70, who is Black and a retired school administrator and active Democrat, will not be deterred from working the polls in Upper Chichester next month. “I tell younger Black people they should vote because people died so we could vote,” she says. “There must be something important about this election, because they’re trying so hard to keep us from voting. I thought we were past this.”

Devouring cable news and wringing their hands isn’t enough. “I feel like I have a purpose. Like I’m doing something,” says volunteer Sally Woolf, 82, retired from real estate management. “I couldn’t imagine just sitting by and thinking to myself, ‘If Trump wins and I did nothing, I will be so upset.’ I’ll feel at least that I tried.”

There is a profound fear of undoing progress that many of them worked to achieve. “We’re at the crossroads of going forward or taking women back to the 1950s — and we were alive for the 50s,” says Elaine Curry, 73. The former medical librarian is helping mobilize Hazleton’s sizable Latino vote in bellwether Luzerne County, which went for Obama twice before voting for Trump. “I’m worried about the world we’re going to have when we’re no longer here. ”

The pandemic has brought a world of potential chaos to voting. Pennsylvania is no exception. Indeed, it may be Exhibit A. Confusion reigns. Court challenges multiply and continue to be appealed.

Most Pennsylvanians are new to voting by mail. The rules are bewildering. The commonwealth will toss “naked ballots” that aren’t enclosed inside the “secrecy envelope,” which sounds like something out of Harry Potter. It must be placed inside a separate mail-in envelope with a signed declaration. Oh, and then there’s the mess with the mail. Voters worried their ballots won’t count or arrive in time must bring them to the polls to be invalidated before they can vote in person.

Phyllis Mikolaitis, a former international training manager for Xerox, isn’t taking any chances.

“I’m going early. I’m wearing my mask. I’m bringing my lunch,” she says. “I’m bringing my chair. I’m going to stick it out.”

She’s 77 and has participated in too many elections for this vote not to count.