‘Something is happening with the seniors’

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As Betsy Chandler delivered and installed Joe Biden yard signs at a house in Mesa recently, a senior couple approached her eagerly asking for “Republicans for Biden” signs. Chandler had to apologize — as a Democrat, she doesn’t usually carry any of those.

She gave them a standard Biden-Harris sign instead. When Chandler, a local Democratic Party vice-chair, asked why, as Republicans, they were voting for Biden, the woman said: “[Donald Trump] wouldn’t wear a mask.”

That was four days before the president tested positive for coronavirus and an outbreak ensued among Trump allies and staff.

In Arizona as elsewhere, Trump’s handling of the pandemic — even prior to his diagnosis — is proving costly, leaving him struggling to match his 2016 performance among those over the age of 65. October polling shows Biden is chipping away at Trump’s support among older white voters, especially among the once reliably Republican senior population in populous Maricopa County.

“Something is happening with the seniors in [Arizona],” said Chandler. “They are livid about the whole COVID thing.”

Trump won the state in 2016 by 3.5 percentage points, but Biden now leads by an average of 3.9 points across polls. Recent surveys show one reason for the turnaround is that the former vice president is pulling some seniors away from Trump.

AARP picked up the movement in its early September poll, which found Biden ahead of Trump among 50 to 64-year-olds by 1 point and by 2 points among those 65 and up. In 2016, Trump won 52 percent of those over 65.

And seniors favor Biden across polls when asked whom they trust to handle the pandemic. Respondents to the AARP poll said they trusted Biden more than Trump, 49 to 42 percent, to protect older people from the coronavirus.

More recently, a New York Times/Siena poll of Arizona found Biden ahead of Trump by one point among those over the age of 65 and beating Trump by 9 points in Phoenix’s Maricopa County among all voters. Overall, Arizona voters say they trust Biden more than Trump to handle the pandemic — by a 14 point margin.

Local polling firms have also seen Trump’s numbers waver among seniors in their surveys.

“Arizona has historically been a retirement destination and older voters typically lean conservative. However, Trump’s support is unstable among this group in our polls here in the Grand Canyon State,” said Mike Noble, partner and chief of research for Phoenix-based OH Predictive Insights polling firm. “If Biden can continue to make in-roads with older Arizonans, Trump will be hard pressed to keep Arizona’s 11 electoral college votes in his column come November.”

Recent polling by OH Predictive found some consolidation of Republicans age 65 and older around Trump, but the president remained underwater with independents of the same age group.

Despite Biden’s gains among senior voters, some Republicans argue the race is far closer than the polls suggest and are optimistic about Trump’s chances of eking out a win. Trump’s team is looking beyond Maricopa County, hoping to drive up the score in rural areas that are considered Trump Country.

Kathy Petsas, a Republican who ran for the statehouse in 2018 and lost, says she expects Trump to survive in Arizona, though she acknowledged the race is a squeaker. She wasn’t bullish on Trump’s chances of winning a second term overall.

“I have a feeling that he will prevail in Arizona; I don’t know that he will prevail overall,” said Petsas, who used to serve as chair of her legislative district’s GOP in Phoenix, which includes parts of north central Phoenix, Arcadia and Paradise Valley.

Petsas, a prior Barry Goldwater and John McCain supporter, backs Trump’s re-election but says the party at times appears “unrecognizable.” She said she’s encountered a number of older female voters during her door-knocking rounds who are Republican, yet are “really uncomfortable with Trump.” In those cases, she urges the women to split their ticket and “come home” to the GOP in down-ballot races like the Senate.

Despite some “Trump fatigue,” she says enthusiasm for the president overall remains high.

Biden and Trump are not only competing for seniors but also for members of the Church of Latter Day Saints and moderate Republicans, a growing number of whom have come out against Trump in the state. Some Republicans have formed groups to publicly declare their support for Biden in the hopes that it shows others that it’s okay to cross party lines — a permission structure some Republicans said could also be buoyed by Cindy McCain’s endorsement for Biden.

Dan Barker, 67, is among them. The Gilbert resident didn’t support Trump nor Hillary Clinton in 2016 — he wrote in Mitt Romney. This time around is different: he and his wife formed the Arizona Republicans Who Believe in Treating Others With Respect PAC. Barker said he’s not simply anti-Trump anymore. “We are going to affirmatively work to see if we can get Biden elected.”

His group prints and distributes Republican for Biden signs and they consistently run out. The signs are taken down quickly by Trump supporters or defaced, Barker said, evidence of the sign war that’s flared up in places like Maricopa County.

“We now consider them like ads,” Barker quipped. “They only run for so long.” They’ve placed nearly 4,000 signs so far and currently have eight electronic billboards up in the Phoenix metro area.

Both candidates have made Arizona a priority in the post-Labor Day homestretch. Trump and Pence made multiple trips in September. Last week, Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) visited the state for the first time. During the trip, Biden and Harris greeted American Indian tribal leaders alongside McCain, spoke to a local carpenters union, and visited with owners of Barrio Cafe in Phoenix.

Latino voters are key part of Biden’s strategy to winning the state. Biden leads Trump with Arizona Latinos who are predominantly of Mexican origin — by 65 to 26 percent, according to a poll from Sept. 24–Oct 1 conducted by the Latino-run Democratic firm Equis Research. Equis Research also found that from August to late September Trump’s support in Arizona among young Latino men — one of the only subgroups of Latinos among whom the president showed some increased support during the summer — dropped by 9 percentage points.

Biden’s campaign is spending an exorbitant amount of money in the state. For four weeks running, starting Sept 22, Biden has spent more in the Phoenix media market than anywhere else in the country. This week, Biden is dropping nearly $4 million in Arizona in total, compared to Trump’s near $1 million buy, according to ad tracker Advertising Analytics.

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