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How older voters feel about voting for older presidents

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: The other day in Zelienople, Pa., I asked 88-year-old David Reckless what's changed for him since he was 80.

DAVID RECKLESS: Energy.

DETROW: Energy?

RECKLESS: (Laughter) I used to be more or less the energy bunny, you know? I mean, I still work out, you know?

DETROW: You seem pretty energetic.

RECKLESS: Yeah, I know. But it's not what you think. More naps in my day - you know, that kind of thing.

DETROW: It's a question that's pretty relevant to next year's presidential election because President Joe Biden, who's 80 now, is running for a second term. He'd be 86 at the end of it. And Biden's most likely opponent, former President Donald Trump, is 77. To put it another way, if you judge it by the age at the start of their term, there's a good chance that next year voters will be choosing between the oldest and the second-oldest presidents in U.S. history.

RECKLESS: My personal opinion is that neither one should be running. Things go downhill in a hurry sometimes, and I think both of them are probably in pretty good health right now. But two, three, four years down the road, I'd be concerned about that.

DETROW: For all the issues out there, including Trump's multiple felony indictments and upcoming trials, age, particularly Biden's age, has become a big factor in the race. Biden often jokes about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I know I don't look that old. I know. I'm a little under 103.

DETROW: But when he stumbles in a speech or in real life...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: We do begin tonight with a frightening image today - President Biden falling onstage at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

DETROW: ...It gets a lot of attention. And a slew of recent polls show voters have concerns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: According to a new CBS poll, only 34% of voters think President Biden would actually make it through a second term if reelected.

DETROW: We decided to talk about all of this with some experts - older voters, people around the age of Trump and Biden. And not just any group of seniors - seniors who live in western Pennsylvania, a place that will have an outsized role in deciding the next president.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Right, left, right, left, right, left.

DETROW: At our first stop, the Vintage Center for Active Adults in Pittsburgh, producer Connor Donevan and I ran into a problem. We wanted to interview people in a line dancing class, and the organizers demanded a bit of a quid pro quo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK. You want something from us. We want something from you, too.

DETROW: What's that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You're going to have to do a dance with us.

DETROW: That's fair. OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right.

(APPLAUSE)

DETROW: We hit the dance floor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is a little call-out dance that...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is a call-out dance. It's easy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. They're going to call it out.

DETROW: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Easy dance. Here we go.

DETROW: All right. Let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: And I'll admit, I struggled with some of the crossover steps especially, way more than the regulars, like 70-year-old Nettie Henning. She's line dancing five times a week. That's just one item on her packed schedule.

NETTIE HENNING: I sew. I play pinochle. I am learning bridge.

DETROW: Oh, yeah?

HENNING: I like things that challenge my brain.

DETROW: Henning says in theory, she would like to see someone younger step up, but she supports Biden and thinks the questions about his age are being blown out of proportion.

HENNING: Sometimes, does he look tired? Yeah. Heck, when I traveled abroad when I was much younger, I would be tired.

DETROW: Yeah.

HENNING: So I think that his health is in good standing.

DETROW: Her fellow line dancer, Len Zapler, sees things differently. He's 85, about the age Biden would be at the end of a second term.

LEN ZAPLER: My chief worry is I'm losing it.

DETROW: Yeah.

ZAPLER: And he's on the verge of losing it, I think. So I wouldn't want this guy out there running the show.

DETROW: So when you think about his age and his ability to do the job, you're thinking about yourself?

ZAPLER: I'm thinking about - yeah.

DETROW: At the same time, Zappler is also a good example of a dynamic Biden's advisers repeatedly point to when asked about these polls showing so many voter concerns about Biden's age. They say all of that changes when voters think about the race as a choice. Zappler is a Republican. He voted for Trump in 2016 and again in 2020. But he says after the past few years, can't do it again.

ZAPLER: I'd be hard-pressed to vote, but I think I'd vote for Biden if I had to.

DETROW: Yeah.

ZAPLER: But I hope he has a very stalwart and capable vice president. That's what I would pray for.

DETROW: To dig deeper into how older voters are thinking about all of this, we gathered a group from the greater Pittsburgh area, people from different political backgrounds who we sat down with at the Passavant Community run by Lutheran SeniorLife. And while more than one of our interviewees told us that age is just a number, we will start by having them list their ages. Susan Hughes.

SUSAN HUGHES: I'll be 77 in a couple weeks.

DETROW: John Fuller.

JOHN FULLER: I'm 81.

DETROW: Rosalie Bablak.

ROSALIE BABLAK: I was 86 on Tuesday.

DETROW: And Preston Shimer.

PRESTON SHIMER: And I'm 84.

HUGHES: Oh, I am the youngest.

SHIMER: You are.

DETROW: The panelists all agree on one thing - that young people have a lot of misconceptions about what it means to get older. Here's John.

FULLER: We live in a society where obsolescence is a reality. We discard things. We get rid of it. I think young people sometimes think that older people are the same way.

DETROW: And Rosalie.

BABLAK: I think it's important that we let young people know it's not frightful. The passage of life is good, and it's good at being old. We enjoy ourselves, too. We have fun.

DETROW: But when it comes to the age of the likely presidential candidates in 2024, views begin to diverge.

When you see coverage of President Biden, when you pay attention to the news, what has stood out to you?

SHIMER: What stands out to me is that Joe Biden is coping with this aging process very well. He's kept his diet down. He's lean and slim. His mental acuity is sharp as anything. You couldn't accomplish what he's done. Trump is a little bit different in that he represents a heart attack waiting to happen because he's proud of the fact that he eats McDonald's on a regular basis and those kind of things. And his lifestyle is one that makes me wonder about his health.

DETROW: What about you, John?

FULLER: I would say, looking at the two, the optics tell me Trump would be the better candidate from a physical standpoint. From a cognitive standpoint, probably they're about the same.

DETROW: Rosalie, what about you?

BABLAK: Well, I honestly wish we had younger candidates because I do believe in the wisdom of age. But I know that I process slower, and I know that my friends do. And the world is very dangerous. We have enemies. We have someone who sits in the Oval Office who's going to touch the button if we're going to have nuclear war. As I look at President Biden, I have real concerns.

DETROW: Is there anything particular that stood in your mind that you saw that made you say that?

BABLAK: Yes. I think the way he walks stiffly - I understand that; we've had walking classes here - and sometimes when he seems not to be able to remember things. You know, we're only assessing from the outside. When I look at President Trump, I think - and I'm not sure I'm allowed to say this - I think he's a street fighter. I like him.

DETROW: You could say it.

BABLAK: I think we fared well under him. I don't like the personal attacks that we are seeing. I think we've come a long way from the civility that I'd like to see.

DETROW: Sue, what about you?

HUGHES: I think Rosalie had a great answer. And I would add that I think it's time to pass the baton 'cause if you don't train the people behind you, there's going to be a vacuum. We've got lots of capable people in their 50s, and I feel sad that people feel the need to hold onto power.

DETROW: Now, you all kind of hinted at this. There's the age issue in this election, but there's a lot of big political issues to talk about right now. So I'm wondering, of all the things you're thinking about when you're thinking about this election, where does the age of the candidates fit in?

SHIMER: The wisdom that I got from my father-in-law, who was a professor of history at Cornell, was you evaluate the person based on the people that that man or woman also brings to the table. Who are there going to be their advisers? - because you're basically electing a team. I think it's clear that I think that Biden has the far better team.

BABLAK: Of course, I would kind of disagree because I like Pompeo and some of them, you know?

SHIMER: But he didn't last.

BABLAK: There's still policies that I like. And I don't even know if I'm allowed to say this, but I'm a Catholic. And Joe Biden says he's a Catholic, and he isn't standing by the things that I abide by.

DETROW: Are you particularly talking about abortion?

BABLAK: That's one of the things. There are other things because I feel like life is valuable. And my concern with all of this is that we're saying to our young people that human life has no value.

DETROW: Let me put this into the broader context of the race with a couple show-of-hands questions. How many of you think, generally, President Biden's doing a good job as president? We got two hands. One kind of so-so.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: How many of you thought President Trump did a good job as president? Rosalie's got her hand up.

BABLAK: Of course.

DETROW: Sue, what about you?

HUGHES: I'm a Republican, and I favor the policies that the Trump-Pence team put forward. But one thing that bothered me and caused me then to vote for President Biden was Mr. Trump's character. It's just tearing apart the fabric of our culture, I think.

FULLER: When I look at Trump and I look at Biden, I feel very good that in Biden's administration, there seemed to be order. In Trump's administration, there was always consternation, always challenge, and he was on the news every day. So - and, of course, you don't have that with President Biden. I personally like that.

DETROW: Any advice you would give to Joe Biden or Donald Trump as you sit here in front of a microphone?

HUGHES: Make your legacy in recruiting and passing on for the good of the country. And the same with Mitch McConnell and Feinstein. It's just kind of embarrassing.

SHIMER: I guess my advice to Donald Trump would be to tell the truth for a change. My advice to Joe Biden would be learn how to camouflage your walk because that's where the criticism is coming from.

FULLER: I guess if we just be candid on the subject...

DETROW: Yeah.

FULLER: ...Advice to both - don't run.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: Thanks so much for coming and having this conversation. I really appreciate it. Thanks to all of you.

HUGHES: You're welcome.

FULLER: Thanks to you.

SHIMER: You're welcome.

DETROW: That was John Fuller, Preston Shimer, Susan Hughes and Rosalie Bablak, senior voters who will help decide who wins Pennsylvania - maybe the election - in next year's presidential race.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLAZO'S "NATURAL GREEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
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