“We really want to win. And you know there’s only one way to do it,” says Van Zandt. “If people don’t see us, they’re not going to know to vote for us.”
Van Zandt is one of her state’s growing senior population. New Hampshire is already one of the country’s oldest states, with more than 18% of its residents aged 65 and older. Seniors in this battleground also have an outsized political impact. In 2016, voters 65 and older made up 21% — or one out of every 5 voters — of the electorate. Put another way — older voters are the most reliable voters for both parties.
“You can always count on us [senior women] to show up and vote. And you can count on older women to also do the grassroots campaign work,” says New Hampshire state Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Democrat. “I think for women voters, senior women voters, the Covid-19 pandemic has colored every single aspect of how they’re making their voting decisions this fall. It’s health. It’s the economy. It’s climate. It’s transportation.”
For Van Zandt, it goes a step further. A New Hampshire Democrat who has spent her life serving others — first as a nurse, then an Episcopal priest — she is now, as she approaches 80 years old, a candidate for elected office for the first time, running for a seat in the New Hampshire state legislature.
“I had no idea what to expect to begin with,” she says of her nascent political career while sitting on her screened-in porch. “And of course, now with Covid, we can’t knock on doors and so we’re relying on phone calls and yard signs.”
A shift in support
Four years ago, New Hampshire was the closest state that Democrat Hilary Clinton won, with fewer than 3,000 votes. Exit polling showed Trump and Clinton split the senior vote in New Hampshire: 49% to 49%. Overall, Trump won among seniors in 2016.
But this cycle, according to polling, older voters appear to favor Biden. An early October survey by CNN found, among respondents 65 and older, 60% of voters favor Biden and only 39% were in favor of Trump. Another survey done by NBC found that seniors backed Biden 62% while 35% for Trump.
Karen Cervantes is an example of this shift of older voters rejecting Trump. Cervantes is 72 years old and a lifelong die-hard Republican. She has been active in Republican politics since she first registered at 18 years old.
“I have literally given my life and soul to the Republican Party,” says Cervantes while sitting in her neighbor’s backyard, wearing her sparkling elephant pin. She has never voted for a Democrat — but is voting for Biden this year.
“Covid, as far as I’m concerned, that was the main decider,” says Cervantes. “I’ve already voted. I voted absentee and I have voted for Biden.”
Cervantes says she never liked Trump. She wrote in former Ohio Governor John Kasich during the 2016 election. But she is taking it one step further, a step she never thought she would make — casting a ballot for a Democrat — because she says she is just exhausted from the last four years.
“The insults, the things that he said about the African nations and things that he’s said about Muslims. The thing is — it’s just not me,” she says. “If Trump wins the very next day, I am going down to Lebanon City Hall and I am registering as an independent — after 55 years.”
Cervantes’ husband, Raul, stands closely by. A quiet man, one has to lean in to fully catch his description of how he built their back porch and the plans he has to finish it soon. But that quiet demeaner gives way to obvious frustration when his wife talks about Trump. He is Mexican American, and still four years later, it is clear Trump’s comments about immigrants from Mexico make his wife’s blood boil.
“My husband is not a rapist. My husband is a very intelligent man. His father is a doctor. My brother-in-law is a doctor. Another brother-in-law is a veterinarian. They are a very intelligent Mexican family, very, very nice Mexican family,” Cervantes says. “I like to find the good in everybody. And you’re going to have bad, but everybody has good, too. And I just don’t feel he gives anybody a chance.”
Cervantes says she has lost friends over her decision to vote for Biden. She says one friend “called and he left this message and he said, ‘I just want to tell you how upset I am. I can’t believe that you have a Biden sign in your yard. I thought you were my friend,'” recalls Cervantes.
Now she has multiple signs in her yard. One sign prominently placed reads: “I’m a Republican but not a Fool. Biden 2020.”
But Cervantes does not want to leave the impression that all of her Republican friends are acting that way. Down the street, she has one Republican friend she has not lost over her vote — Leila Welch. Welch is the owner of the Welch’s Gun Shop in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
Welch says it is “ridiculous” than anyone would end a friendship over a vote. Still, Welch, who is also in her 70s, doesn’t understand why her friend wouldn’t support Trump.
Welch says Trump is the only politician she has ever donated money to. She’s fearful of Biden’s stance on gun control and also that he’ll raise her taxes and force her to push off retirement. She wears a mask throughout a conversation with CNN in her cramped store — as one of her employees defiantly stands maskless the entire time, even pointing it out to his boss.
State Sen. Rosenwald says it is clear from her conversations with senior women that this election is different from any other.
“People are anxious and they’re anxious for the election to be over. And I think particularly women want a return to the appropriate discourse and proper behavior worthy of the leader of the free world,” she said.
‘He’s talking about me’
According to the CDC, a staggering 8 out of 10 deaths in the country from Covid-19 have been among people 65 and older. In New Hampshire, 96% of the deaths have been people 60 and older, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. That weighs heavily on the senior women who talked to CNN. It weighs heavily on their lives, their votes, and also their view of President Donald Trump, and what he says about their value to the country.
“I am 77 years of age. I live with a woman who is 75 years of age. We do not want to become ill and die yet. We’re not ready,” Sanbornton resident Gail Morrison says defiantly while sitting in her friend’s barn. Morrison grew up in a Republican household but is a proud Democrat today. What seems to bother her most about the President is his handling of the coronavirus response. She laughs and rolls her eyes when asked about it. And she becomes very quiet and serious when she is reminded of the President’s recent characterization of the virus — that it “affects virtually no one.”
At that same rally, he continued: “[It] affects elderly people, elderly people with heart problems and other problems. If they have other problems, that’s what it really affects. That’s it.”
“It’s a horrible thing that he should be so out of touch with the realities,” Morrison says.
She said it makes her feel “excluded … expendable … That we don’t matter. And if we get it and we become very ill, it doesn’t matter that we might need ventilators and be dead in two days.”
Morrison has lost a good friend to the virus. “They woke up in the morning and Brian was dead,” she recalls. “He was the kindest, the most gentle man you would ever want.”
Morrison said she believes New Hampshire will vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden because of the coronavirus and the President’s downplaying of it. She also says his attacks on Biden’s age and mental acuity aren’t helping with the senior vote, either.
“Anybody of my age has to say — he’s talking about me. He’s not just talking about Joe Biden,” Morrison says. “He’s not going to win for reasons just like that.”
When asked if it’s ever fair to consider age when considering who vote for, the response from these women — ranging in age from 66 to 78 — may be surprising. They think it’s fair game but it’s not everything.
“I wish [Biden} were maybe 10 years younger,” Van Zandt says with a laugh. The episcopal priest then delivers the punchline: “I wish the pope were 20 years younger.”
“I just mean it would be nice to be able to turn the clock back so that he’d have more time to be president.”