Sixteen. That’s the number of times that Ellen Chrouch, a bird-loving Republican at the Shell Point Retirement Community, has cast a vote for president, starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 and, this year, a reluctant ballot for Donald Trump. During that time, America’s political landscape has been turned inside out and upside down, and to hear many older voters tell it, is now marked only by low roads.
“There was a time in my life when I really wanted to pick a good person for president, and he was there,” Chrouch, 80, who escaped Ohio’s harsh winters 10 years ago, said with resignation and a touch of incredulity. “I don’t like either one of them,” she said of this year’s two presidential choices, “so I fear for the future.”
Retirees are Florida’s most coveted political demographic — nationally, 72 percent of registered voters 65 and older turned out in the 2012 presidential race, and Florida has the nation’s highest percentage of residents of that age. While they have plenty of company in being turned off by this election, conversations with retirees in and around two retirement villages, in West Palm Beach and Fort Myers, were a reminder that presidential politics has not always been this dispiriting. And the longer the memories, the worse this election can look.
“This is the worst kind of election I have ever been through,” said Pam Cesner, 70, another Republican transplant from Ohio, who sat sipping coffee outside a Fresh Market in Fort Myers with her husband, David, 73. “I think there has always been, somewhat, this kind of mudslinging, but never to this extent.”
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If the sour sentiments were common, they seemed most widespread among Republicans, who lamented that Trump was the party’s nominee.
People 65 and older make up 19 percent of this swing state’s residents. Thirty-three percent of the state’s registered voters, with slightly more Republicans than Democrats, are 61 or older, according to Daniel A. Smith, an election expert at the University of Florida. And they are the residents most likely to vote, experts say.
Polls on people over 65 are often hard to gauge because of small sample sizes, but some recent national and state surveys show Hillary Clinton either slightly ahead or close to even with Trump among older voters. This is a significant problem for Trump, because older voters in recent elections have been reliably Republican. Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama by 12 percentage points among older adults nationwide in 2012. The margin in Florida was even wider. Yet, Romney failed to win. The last Democrat with a nationwide majority of the 65-and-over vote was Al Gore in 2000.
If any election has tempted older voters to take a nostalgic plunge into past races, it is this one. These are people who once dressed up to go to the polls to cast their first votes for figures like Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. Their coming-of-age political era evoked buzzwords like dignity and civility.
“Maybe it’s the ethics, the manners, or respect, that’s gone,” said Lou Sahlmann, 89, a party-line Republican who sat carving an egret out of black walnut in Shell Point’s wood-shop room. His first presidential vote, in 1948, went to Thomas E. Dewey, who lost to Harry S. Truman.
President Ronald Reagan, he said, “was a gentleman.”
This time, Sahlmann, a retired manufacturing executive who left Erie, Penn., for Florida 17 years ago, said he reluctantly chose Trump. “It was a holding-my-nose vote,” he said. Describing Trump as “infantile,” he paused to remove his glasses and set aside his egret. “I hope it’s not our democracy falling apart.”
No one could precisely say where the turning point took place, that moment when political campaigns seemed to plummet. Maybe it came with President Bill Clinton and his affairs, or President George W. Bush and the Iraq War. Certainly, the media’s 24-hour news cycle, its more polarized stances and the extreme push for ratings and clicks have contributed to the combustion, the retirees said.
Consider bipartisanship, several said. It was not so long ago, after all, that Republicans and Democrats could lean on each other to work out a deal and actually pass meaningful laws. Reagan sipped beers and shared a regular St. Patrick’s Day lunch with the Democratic House speaker, Tip O’Neill, to hash out their differences. President Lyndon B. Johnson turned bipartisanship into a much-admired sport.
“In the old days, Democrats and Republicans would have a martini and get things done,” said Bob Daley, 81, who sat with his brother admiring the gulf view at Shell Point.
Or take sex scandals, they said. Plenty of presidents had extramarital sexual escapades, most famously Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy. But they were viewed as private family matters, not as a chance to publicly forage “in the gutter,” as some here saw it, or conduct a public vivisection of a person’s character. The media (overwhelmingly a men’s club) famously shied away from these stories.
“Presidents in the past had their lovers and mistresses,” said Sandy Greene, a Democrat who grew up on New York’s Upper West Side and now lives in Century Village in West Palm Beach, prime turf for Democrats. “I love JFK. There were mistakes made all over. They all had skeletons. But there was dignity, and there seemed to be resolution. This is an embarrassment.”
Still, at 80, Greene does not pine for the era — her era — when women were always expected to put dinner on the table, fetch coffee for their husbands and make do with domestic life. Trump, she said, evokes the worst of that era when he talks about women.
“I don’t want my grandchildren to see and hear that,” Greene said. “That was our place then; it isn’t now.”