Seeing Medicare as a window to gain new support, President Barack Obama’s campaign dispatched the vice president to two sprawling Florida retirement communities Friday, hoping a white-haired 69-year-old running mate will be able to stir enthusiasm among seniors in Democrat-rich South Florida and tip the scales for the state’s 29 electoral votes.
“It makes sense,” says Charles Zeldon, a Nova Southeastern University expert on politics and voting. “He is one of them.”
Well, at least closer than Obama, a generation younger.
That may give Biden an edge in helping the president chip into Republican Mitt Romney’s lead among senior citizens, a key voting bloc not only in Florida but other battleground states such as Iowa and Ohio. The Democratic campaign doesn’t expect to win the majority of seniors, but hopes that lowering Romney’s totals could make the difference in close states.
Biden has spent much of the campaign trying to shore up support among white, working class voters, another group where he has a more natural connection than Obama. He’s aiming to use his same affable, plain-spoken style to persuade older voters to back Obama.
He stopped by a local deli later Friday, where he greeted a man who informed him he had once shaken the hand of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“I’m shaking a heckuva hand,” Biden announced. The man identified himself to reporters as Seymour Maiman, 85, of Ft. Lauderdale.
Biden hit all the expected notes before a crowd of about 850 at Century Village in Boca Raton, a popular campaign stop for Democrats. He spoke of Obama as a defender of popular entitlement programs like Medicare, and portrayed the plans of Mitt Romney and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan as harmful to seniors and their families.
“What they don’t tell you, what they really don’t want to talk about, is how they’d fundamentally change Medicare,” Biden said. “They’d turn it into a voucher program.”
When it comes to Medicare, the Republicans say the Democrats have it backward.
Ryan, speaking to an AARP conference last week, declared, “The first step to a stronger Medicare is to repeal Obamacare because it represents the worst of both worlds. It weakens Medicare for today’s seniors and puts it at risk for the next generation.”
“Who are you going to believe?” Biden asked on Friday after unleashing a barrage of criticism of Republican plans.
Ryan’s Medicare proposals have been a frequent target for Democrats, but Biden went further, saying a vote for the GOP would also lead to hundreds of dollars in tax increases on seniors’ Social Security benefits.
“They cannot possibly continue and add to the tax cuts for the super wealthy unless they eviscerate the rest of the budget,” he said.
Again, the Romney camp said, Biden had it exactly wrong.
“Vice President Biden is using Social Security to fabricate the Obama campaign’s latest false attacks,” said spokesman Ryan Williams.
Inside the Century Village clubhouse, a Democratic-friendly but sometimes cantankerous crowd didn’t muffle any complaints. “We can’t hear you!” some shouted when the volume was too low. “Sit down!” when their view was obstructed. And, at least once, “This music is awful!”
But Biden was met with loud applause and beaming faces.
“I’m a Joe fan! I’m a Joe fan!” said Judy Cloutier, 66, who came to hear Biden speak. “He’s such a down-to-earth man. He’s like salt of the earth.”
Dot Tillett, 67, said Biden was the right running mate for Obama, and a good choice to send to talk to seniors. “He’s a perfect complement,” she said. “He communicates well with people of all types. He’s just that kind of guy.”
Dorothy Schayes, 87, was less enthusiastic about the vice president, calling him “a joke.” But deeply behind Obama, she hoped others were paying attention to the Medicare debate, which she said spurred concern for her 16-year-old granddaughter.
“I think there’s trouble for her,” she said. “So he needs another term.”
At the deli later, the vice president also made a detailed sales pitch to a customer who had questions about Obama’s health care overhaul.
“You will be able to get better health care than you get now in terms of cost for a lot less money,” Biden told Steve Grossman, 39.
Younger people also are being enlisted by the Democrats in going after the elderly. The Obama campaign announced a new e-card effort asking young supporters to send messages to their parents and grandparents telling them their Social Security and other benefits are at risk under Republican plans.
Seniors, like people in most demographics, are largely decided on who they’ll vote for in the election. So making sure supporters turn out at the polls is important for both campaigns. Nationally, the 65+ population votes at a higher rate than any other age group.
Florida has a higher proportion of people 65 and older than any other state, and its total population of nearly 3.3 million seniors is second only to California. An estimated 68 percent of seniors in Florida voted in the 2008 presidential election.
A national Associated Press-GfK poll earlier this month found 52 percent of seniors supported Romney compared to 41 percent for Obama. But Democrats have sought gains among seniors by criticizing Romney’s plan for Medicare, and a Pew poll released last week showed older voters who rate Medicare as a very important issue supported Obama by a substantial margin.
Zeldon said the resurgence of the Medicare issue has given an opportunity to Obama with older voters.
“He sees them as a vulnerable population for the Republicans,” Zeldon said. “When they raised the issue of Medicare, they gave the Democrats a gift, because it allows them to give their ideas about Medicare and it’s an easier sell.”