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Older Voters Don't Feel a Connection to Candidates


BRUNSWICK, Md. — They're supposed to be focusing on issues such as Social Security and Medicare reform. Maybe military preparedness too, since many of them came of age when the world was at war in Europe and the Pacific.

But in interviews over the last several days, older Americans nationwide say their votes this year will be affected less by candidates' positions on issues than on their own personal history and instinct, tempered by cynicism and distrust.

"The promises really should be, 'I'm going to promise to try,' since they really can't do anything without the Congress," said Donald Deener, 59, a former federal computer analyst now retired in this aging village built on low steep hills where the Potomac River tumbles eastward from the Appalachians. "What really concerns me is whether they can do anything about these things. . . . They really need to care for the aged, but I don't know what they can do about it."

That sense of resignation among older voters can be measured. A survey this summer by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that while Americans age 65 or older were paying closer attention to the presidential election than younger people, only half felt that it mattered who wins.

Still, some 77% of people age 50 or older said they intend to watch the debates, which begin Tuesday. Four years ago, about 71% of older Americans watched the debates, according to a survey by AARP (formerly the American Assn. of Retired Persons). But only about a third of those said it affected their vote.

That survey also found that when asked to choose among issues that would be important to their decision, 29% of voters age 50 or older said Social Security, followed by 18% who said prescription drugs in Medicare.

Yet interviews with older voters found a wide gap between issues and votes.

Roy Gardner, 80, plans to watch the debates from the musty living room of his sagging wood-frame house on a tree-shaded street in Starke, a small central Florida city that is home to a maximum security prison and the state's Death Row.

Historically, Gardner has supported Democrats. But he hasn't made up his mind yet who to vote for this fall and can't point to one issue that will decide it for him. He doubts the debates will help.

"I listen to them all the time when they're on [TV], and I think [Republican George W.] Bush will [win], as far as that goes," said Gardner, a retired steel worker from Tampa who lost his right leg in an industrial accident. "But I don't know who I'm voting for."

Jewel Duckworth, 73, a Mesa, Ariz., Democrat who backed Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, has made his decision. He'll vote for Democratic nominee Al Gore because he thinks the vice president is more likely to extend the strong economy that emerged during the Clinton administration.

But his support is tepid, at best.

"The fact of it is, there's a world of people that would be better than either one of them, for crying out loud," said Duckworth, a retired builder and auto-shop owner.

Because of their ambivalence, older voters could be critical in an election expected to be the closest since John F. Kennedy nudged past Richard M. Nixon 40 years ago when many of today's seniors were young voters.

According to U.S. Census data, turnout among people 65 or older has run from 62% to 70% in presidential elections over the last 35 years, the highest turnout by any age group.

Even with the high turnout, however, the effect of seniors on elections is not as great as larger age groups that are less reliable. In the last presidential race, for example, there were twice as many voters aged 25 to 44 (83 million) as seniors even though turnout in the younger group was just 49%.

So far, Bush holds a slim lead over Gore (46% to 42%) among seniors, according to a Los Angeles Times survey released last week.

Frances Holder, a Bush supporter who turns 65 this month, said she's "concerned about Social Security because I just got on it."

Holder moved into Brunswick more than a decade ago after spending much of her life working on a nearby family farm--work she found too difficult as she got older.

Matriarch of a family that encompasses seven children, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, Holder works as a part-time school bus attendant for special education students to augment her Social Security checks.

Despite her concern over the health of Social Security, Holder hasn't examined the two major party candidates' plans for reforming the system.

"I'm voting for Bush," she said, "because we need to get that Clinton bunch out of there."

Ann Ganyard, though, can't make up her mind.

"I don't like either of them," said Ganyard, 70, a retired Head Start teacher from Elkhart, Ind., who historically has voted for Republican presidential candidates. "I like their running mates more than the main act."

Ganyard said she is concerned over issues ranging from violence to education, worries about the health of Social Security but opposes Bush's plan to allow workers to invest Social Security payments in private accounts. And after eight years, she sees welfare reform as the only accomplishment by a Democratic administration.

"On the same token, I don't like George Bush," she said, adding that she doesn't know what will sway her decision. "You can't be stupid enough to think that any one man is going to go to Washington and clean up the whole mess."

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