US election: Are older Trump voters sticking with him?

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Supporters at Trump rally before 2016 electionImage copyright
Mark Makela/Getty

Their combined ages total 151 but for presidential candidates Donald Trump, 74, and Joe Biden, 77, retirement is far from their minds as they fight it out to become the top dog in American politics.

The support of over-65s was integral to President Donald Trump’s Republican win over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US elections.

They are reliable voters, rain or shine, and they swung behind him by nine percentage points more than Mrs Clinton.

But four years later and in midst of heavy debate over Mr Trump’s leadership in this coronavirus pandemic, will those who backed him then still stand by their man?

‘I’ve never seen America so divided’

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Elizabeth Hall

Retired lawyer Elizabeth Hall, 65, of Mount Kisco, New York regrets voting for Mr Trump in 2016, calling her decision “the biggest mistake of my life”.

Her vote for President Trump was a vote against Hillary Clinton, whom she despised, but right now Hall, a grandmother-of-five, says: “I’ve never seen America so divided”.

Hall says the perceived lack of government action over coronavirus has been key in influencing her decision to vote for Mr Biden this time. She also believes Mr Biden has more empathy.

“Every day Trump had a Covid meeting and every day he was ignoring the facts and pushing them away,” she says.

When she saw this, Hall, a former nurse, began sewing masks to donate to others. As she’s in a high-risk category, she began self-isolating early.

But she’s among thousands of older voters expected to still head out to the polling stations, as she’s concerned about disruptions to the postal service.

She explains: “I don’t like the idea because of Covid and I’m susceptible. But I’m not losing my vote.”

‘He’s a goofball but I like him’

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Neil Van Steemburg

Neil Van Steemburg, 68, of Illinois, Chicago, will be voting for President Trump a second time.

The retired computer operator has not been able to see either of his two sisters -one of whom contracted coronavirus – since February and he says despite being a solitary character, he misses going downtown a few times a week for meetings and having some social interactions.

He describes Mr Trump as a “goofball” whom he liked but whose leadership and response to the pandemic was perhaps somewhat confused.

There is one factor that means Mr Trump has his vote, no matter what this election, and that has been the president’s conservative choices for Supreme Court Justice.

“The president serves four years and so affects much less but who he appoints as a judge will be there for way past my lifetime. And that will keep America safe from going too far in one direction or another.”

‘Biden is a weak candidate’

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Ebun

Dr Ebun Ekunwe, 72, of Carrollton, Texas, also voted for President Trump in 2016 as a vote against the Democratic Party nominee Mrs Clinton.

The retired physician started self-isolating early as she has Hemoglobin SC disease.

Healthcare is her biggest election concern and she says: “Our experience with the coronavirus is a very strong case for the existence of a public health system.”

While she will vote for Mr Biden, she believes him to be a weak candidate and one of the other reasons she had voted for Mr Trump four years ago was because he “was a fighter”.

Ekunwe, who is also an associate pastor in her local church, adds she remains aghast at the way “blacks are treated in this country”.

The author adds: “Black lives, like all other lives, matter. And as soon as we get over that bump as a nation, we will achieve real peace and progress – for even the oppressors.”

‘Trump isn’t racist, he’s of that era’

But Maria, 74, of Berkley, California, believes the Black Lives Matter movement has been politicised in the run up to the election and taken over by “college educated white people” intent on causing trouble and stopping African American voices from being heard.

The former Marxist, who did not want to give her full name, will back Mr Trump once again this November.

She believes Mr Trump is often unfairly criticised, adding: “It’s rubbish to say he’s a racist. He’s like everybody else of his era – of my era.”

Maria, who is white, says Democrat attacks on the President are “damaging to our national unity and national security” but Mr Trump’s “ego and stubbornness” meant he was so “thick-skinned” that it worked in his favour.

And when it comes to coronavirus, while she has been careful in order not to catch it, she believes it is the responsibility of the respective states to look after residents.

‘We like the look of Kamala Harris’

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PAul Wilkinson

Paul Wilkinson, 68, and his wife Diana, of Sarasota, Florida, had quite an active social life until coronavirus put a halt to large gatherings with their friends.

They were among those whose vote in 2016 meant Mr Trump shot past his rival with a 17-point lead when it came to older voters in the sunshine state.

Back then they believed the businessman would bring strong leadership into the White House, and while they support some of his decisions – such as having federal troops defend federal buildings – now was time for a change.

They believe Mr Trump’s sometimes shocking tweets are a “window into his character”.

They have worries over Mr Biden’s age and health but Wilkinson says: “We like the look of [vice-president nominee Kamala] Harris, and unless there is a disaster in the debates, or Covid takes down one or the other, I am likely to vote Democrat for the first time ever.”

‘American politics is like gang warfare’

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Jim Hurson

Jim Hurson, 73, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, voted for Mr Trump in 2016 both as a vote against Mrs Clinton but also because he believed Mr Trump had stronger policies.

The former Air Force and commercial pilot says he and his wife do all they can to minimise the risk of getting coronavirus but currently their primary focus is rebuilding their home after it was destroyed by wildfires.

He remains undecided about who to pick this year but his biggest concerns include illegal migration, the right to privacy and the absence of functioning political discourse.

Hurson suggests America’s political landscape is like “gang warfare”, adding: “There is no intelligent discourse. What we have is an established system of dogmas, and neither party will acknowledge, under any circumstances, that the other party might have a good idea.”

‘I voted against Clinton, now I’m voting against Trump’

Retired anesthesiologist Dr William B McIlvaine, 68, of Mesilla, New Mexico had voted for Mr Trump as a vote against Mrs Clinton.

Now his top concerns include coronavirus; America’s response to the death of George Floyd, the African-American father killed by police in Minneapolis; and the state of the economy.

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William B McIlvaine

He and his wife, who have been self-isolating with their dog Bella, are disappointed in the president.

McIlvaine says Mr Trump does not inspire people and ignores scientists: “Here’s a man who really could take advantage of the opportunities with George Floyd, with Covid, with our economic disasters, to function and serve as a leader and inspire Americans to do good things.

“They could accept the limitations briefly – wear a mask, socially isolate and all of that. But he completely chose not to do that.”

He adds: “I think my vote will probably be the same principle again – so against Trump first; for Biden and Harris second.”

‘Trump has told Europeans they’re getting a free ride’

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Carl

Holocaust survivor Carl, 86, lives in New York City. He voted for Donald Trump in 2016 as a vote against Mrs Clinton.

The father-of-three has taken immense care to protect his wife, 85, whose health is compromised, during the pandemic.

Carl, who did not wish to reveal his full name, says after living in Germany and Ukraine, the US remains the best country in the world and is a “land of opportunity”.

Carl believes Mr Biden is too old to handle domestic problems and foreign disputes and so he says he will reluctantly vote for Mr Trump again this year because he feels he has no other choice.

The retired engineer backed Mr Trump’s attitude towards foreign policy, saying; “He’s finally telling the Europeans that we’re spending a significant percentage of our budget on defence. You are getting a free ride.

“He’s opening up the eyes of our allies – they should do something and not just depend on America.”

What the expert says…

Pew Research Center’s Carroll Doherty says the votes and opinions of those aged 65 and older would certainly be of interest to the two presidential campaigns. Older voters tend to have a higher turnout than younger counterparts and generally steer towards Republican preferences but this year, partly because of the pandemic, everything was a lot more unpredictable.

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Getty Images

Doherty says Pew’s research so far suggests 41% of voters 65 and older say they intend to vote at the polls on election day; another 18% say they’ll vote early in person while 40% say they’ll vote by mail.

But he wasn’t at all surprised to hear some of these older voters explain why they voted for Donald Trump in 2016 as a vote against Mrs Clinton or why some were choosing Mr Biden as a vote against the incumbent. Doherty describes this as negative partisanship. It’s because they wanted to keep the other candidate out of the role, no matter what.

He says: “We asked people what’s the biggest reason you support your candidate, and invariably a lot of people say ‘well they are not the other person'”.

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