James Hill hardly leaves his home in Philadelphia anymore, so that’s where the 71-year-old Republican was sitting when he watched President Donald Trump return to the White House after his COVID-19 hospitalization and tell Americans not to fear the virus.
Hill knows better.
Every few days, he’s back at the kitchen table in Chestnut Hill to write another condolence note memorializing a friend of a loved one he’s lost to this deadly disease, 10 so far.
“Telling us not to be afraid of the coronavirus when so many people in the White House are coming down with it is ridiculous,” said Hill, an Army veteran and retired investment banker. “I’m embarrassed that my party nominated him and that America elected him. I wouldn’t even sit down to dinner with him at this point.”
Pennsylvania’s seniors voted for Trump four years ago, but his mishandling of the pandemic has made it tougher to win them over this time around. Numerous surveys show the president losing ground with them here and in other swing states. Combined with erosion of his support among white voters, that could make it exceedingly difficult to win Pennsylvania — and reelection.
A Quinnipiac University poll conducted after the Sept. 29 presidential debate found that voters of retirement age in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state, prefer Democratic nominee Joe Biden over Trump by 19 percentage points. That lead grew by five points since Quinnipiac’s early September survey. Seniors think the former vice president is better able to manage the pandemic, boost the economy, and heal a country still reeling from a summer of protests against systemic racism.
Trump earlier this month tweeted a video recorded on the White House lawn, where he looks into the camera and proudly declares “I’m a senior!” after calling seniors “my favorite people in the world.”
But even if, at 74, Trump can convince older voters he’s just like them and would be a more effective leader in his second term, it will be a challenge for him to overcome their beliefs about his character. Quinnipiac’s latest polling shows that majorities of Pennsylvania seniors consider Trump a dishonest man who doesn’t care about average Americans.
“He’s been unfaithful to his business partners and his wives," said Hill, a moderate Republican who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 after Republican John Kasich’s primary campaign fizzled and now plans to vote for Biden. "He has no allegiance to anyone but himself. I find the president repulsive.”
Republican candidates typically carry older voters by comfortable margins. The last Democrat who ran for president and won support from a majority of seniors was Al Gore, who made protecting popular retirement programs like Social Security and Medicare a pillar of his 2000 campaign.
Former state Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason shrugged off signs that Trump is in trouble with seniors and said he expects older voters will “come home” in the end.
“The closer we get to the election, the more likely it is that people will come back to the issues they know, like law and order and the economy,” Gleason said. “Seniors are very interested in these issues, and they believe in the president.”
But more than a dozen seniors interviewed across the state said Trump’s erratic behavior and crass comments over the last 3½ years have worn them down. Repeatedly downplaying the threat posed by the virus was the last straw.
Joni Phillips, 80, conceded that Biden wasn’t her first choice but said she would take just about anyone over Trump. Now she has a Biden flag and a homemade “Dump Lying Trump” sign tacked up outside her home in Nanty Glo, a small coal-mining town in central Pennsylvania. She plans to register as a Democratic poll watcher to ensure Trump supporters follow the rules on Election Day.
Phillips and her husband are news junkies, so they already had the television tuned to CNN on Oct. 4 when Trump briefly left Walter Reed Army Medical Center during his hospitalization to wave to supporters. They watched in disbelief as Trump gleefully waved to his fans through the thick windows of his armored SUV, knowing that the Secret Service agents in the car were at risk of contracting the virus.
“Over 200,000 people have died and it doesn’t even faze him. He doesn’t even mention it,” Phillips said. “All he thinks about is himself.”
Eight out of every 10 coronavirus deaths in the United States are among people ages 65 and older. Trump still doesn’t wear a face mask regularly — and seniors said they feel betrayed.
J. Robb, 76, lives in a continuing-care retirement community in Media, where residents are so fearful of the virus that they won’t eat together in the dining room. He said he and his wife were appalled when they saw Trump strip off his mask at the White House after being released from Walter Reed.
“I thought he would find religion after being exposed, but it’s clear no conversion took place,” said Robb, a registered independent who has long supported Republican candidates for president.
It’s not just that older voters have soured on Trump; they also find Biden appealing, polling shows.
Roughly two-thirds of likely voters in Pennsylvania ages 65 and up told Quinnipiac pollsters that Biden, 77, is honest and has a sense of decency. And after the debate, 42% of those respondents said they had a more favorable view of Biden. Just over half said their view of Trump, who repeatedly interrupted Biden during the debate and shouted over the moderator, had declined.
The share of older Pennsylvania voters who believe Biden cares about other Americans, 66%, is larger than any other age group.
Jo-Ann Cooper, 72, a Democrat who lives in Philadelphia and spoke to a reporter while out on a 10-mile walk, described Biden as “a good guy."
Walt Wiesenhutter taught finance at Bucks County Community College for 50 years and loves that Biden graduated from the University of Delaware, a state school.
“He’s a regular kind of guy,” said Wiesenhutter, a 75-year-old Democrat who lives in an assisted living facility in Ambler.
Carol Cooper, who is Black, said Biden may be the only person who can fix things.
As she waited to catch the bus on Olney Avenue in Northwest Philadelphia, Cooper said she hopes to vote by mail but is willing to wait in line on Election Day as long as it takes if her ballot never arrives.
“This is the most important election in my entire life,” said Cooper, 73, a lifelong Democrat. “If I have to, I definitely will go. I’ll bring a chair and just move my chair along.”
Trump can still count on strong support from older members of his base across Pennsylvania.
Doug Sutter, 69, supported the president four years ago and said he’s done pretty well in Trump’s America. His grown children are all married and working. He’s not rich, but he’s not hurting. And so far, the unrest that has swept through some cities hasn’t reached East Rochester in Beaver County, where Sutter has lived his whole life.
Like most seniors, Sutter is concerned about the coronavirus, especially because of his heart problems, but he still thinks the president has done a good job managing the pandemic. Quinnipiac found 59% of Pennsylvania voters age 65 and up disapprove of Trump’s response.
“If he could wave a magic wand, he’d make this go away,” said Sutter, sitting in a motorized scooter parked in his driveway in suburban Pittsburgh. “He has to work with what he’s been given, and I think he’s getting blocked on so many things he wants to do to help this country. It’s all politics.”
Larry Keys, 80, lives one town over and hopes to see Trump win in a landslide, but he’s not sure how realistic that wish is. The president’s abrasive style, he acknowledged, isn’t for everyone.
“I worship the man," Keys said. "I think he’s done a fantastic job in the White House. However, I don’t always agree with his ranting. But I’m still gonna vote for him.”
-Staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this article.