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We spoke to older voters about Trump and Biden's age. We saw 3 recurring themes

<strong>Left to right:</strong> Rosalie Bablak, 86; David Reckless, 88; John Fuller, 81 at the Passavant Community Abundant Life Center in Zelienople, Pa. in September.
Nate Smallwood for NPR
Left to right: Rosalie Bablak, 86; David Reckless, 88; John Fuller, 81 at the Passavant Community Abundant Life Center in Zelienople, Pa. in September.

David Reckless didn't hesitate when asked about the main difference between being 80 and 88 years old.

"Energy."

"I used to be more or less the energy bunny," the 88-year-old said, looking down over a model train set in Zelienople, Pennsylvania. Now, not so much. "More naps in my day. That kind of thing."

The question of age is looming over next year's presidential election, because President Joe Biden, who's 80 now, is running for a second term. And his most likely opponent, according to just about every poll of the Republican primary field, would be former President Donald Trump, who's 77.

If you measure both men's age from the day they first took office, that means Americans will likely choose between the country's oldest-ever president, and its second oldest.

"My personal opinion is that neither one should be running," Reckless said. "Things go downhill in a hurry sometimes, and I think both of them are in pretty good health right now, but two, three, four years down the road, I'd be concerned about that."

David Reckless tinkers with the model trains.
/ Nate Smallwood for NPR
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Nate Smallwood for NPR
David Reckless tinkers with the model trains.

Politics doesn't usually come up during Reckless' model train club meetings at Lutheran Senior Life's Passavant Community. But poll after poll after poll shows that for all the other issues in next year's election, including Trump's multiple felony criminal charges, the candidate's ages — and Biden's in particular — are top of mind for many voters.

Biden's doctor has repeatedly given him a clean bill of health, but his occasional stumbles, like a tumble this spring during an Air Force Academy graduation, have made headlines.

And polls have repeatedly shown that they've left an impression. In just about every recent national survey from a major news outlet, a sizable majority of voters have raised concerns about Biden's ability to do the job in a second term.

No one is better positioned to assess the impacts of age on the candidates than the voters who've lived it themselves: seniors around the same age as Biden and Trump. NPR interviewed more than a dozen of them. And not just any group of seniors: seniors who live and cast ballots in western Pennsylvania, a region that's of key strategic and symbolic importance to both Biden and Trump's campaign.

The counties around Pittsburgh are home to white, working class communities that helped put Trump in office, and wealthy suburbs that swung the other way as Biden won the state in 2020.

Pittsburgh Democrat Nettie Henning, 70, says she'd like a younger candidate than Biden, but she doesn't believe the party has prepared a solid alternative. "[Biden] is our best chance at this point to save our democracy."
/ Nate Smallwood for NPR
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Nate Smallwood for NPR
Pittsburgh Democrat Nettie Henning, 70, says she'd like a younger candidate than Biden, but she doesn't believe the party has prepared a solid alternative. "[Biden] is our best chance at this point to save our democracy."

The conversations with people from a range of political backgrounds confirmed the general trends of the polls: most voters wished both Biden and Trump would step aside for a younger generation. Few, if any, expressed genuine excitement about the prospect of a rematch of the brutal 2020 campaign.

But they also revealed much more nuance. Many of the seniors felt that younger people don't fully appreciate or understand the aging process. Several thought Biden's physical and verbal stumbles were often overblown, even though most said they didn't personally have the energy to be president at their age.

The interviews showed three recurring themes in how older voters are approaching next year's election.

1. Voters saw the candidates' health in comparison to their own

The regulars in Stella Hopewell's line dancing class at the Vintage Center for Active Adults, in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood, are all seniors. But Hopewell said they've outlasted high school students in the past when they've held joint events. "We dance those young people into the ground," she said proudly at the end of a two-hour class.

Twice a week, the group powers through coordinated steps, dips, twirls and crossovers as funk, soul, and go-go blast through the speakers.

"The discipline, both mental and physical, is fabulous," said Cathie Huber, a regular. "Absolutely fabulous."

Huber is 80, the same age as Biden. "I feel at 80, I'm just as sharp as I ever was. I have physical liabilities, but that has nothing to do with the mental capabilities."

Cathie Huber line dances at  the Vintage Senior Services in September.
/ Nate Smallwood for NPR
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Nate Smallwood for NPR
Cathie Huber line dances at the Vintage Senior Services in September.

She supports Biden, will vote for him next year, and thinks the coverage of his age is overblown.

"I think another term isn't going to hurt him a bit," Huber said. "A lot of the ladies out on the floor are past 80 and we keep going. This keeps us young."

Huber's fellow line dancer, Len Zapler, sees things differently. "My chief worry is, I'm losing it," the 85-year-old said. "And he's on the verge of losing it, I think. So I wouldn't want this guy out there running the show."

Zapler keeps active with line dancing, yoga and other physical activity, but has felt his reaction times and memory fade in recent years. He's been troubled by some of the coverage of Biden, particularly his stumbles in speeches.

Still, Biden often quips that voters should judge him against "the alternative, not the Almighty," and within that framing, Zapler offers a twist.

He's a Republican, and has been voting Republican on the ticket since 1960. "I didn't even vote for Kennedy," he joked. That extended through 2016 and 2020, when Zapler cast ballots for Trump. But he said he couldn't do it again in 2024.

"I think he's really gone off the rails," he said. "I'd be hard pressed to vote, but I think I'd vote for Biden, if I had to. But I hope he has a very stalwart and capable vice president. That's what I pray for."

2. Voters' perceptions of age broke down along partisan lines

Most Democratic seniors NPR spoke to weren't especially worried about Biden's health. "Biden is coping with his aging process very well," said Preston Shimer, 84, of Mt. Lebanon. "He's still coping with his stuttering problem, which impacts his verbal presentation. Well, he's had to do that for his entire life."

Shimer put more weight on Biden's record and cabinet than the way his gait has changed with age. "I don't care about his golf score," he said. "You're basically electing a team and therefore, I think it's clear that I think that Biden has a far better team."

Preston Shimer, 84.
/ Nate Smallwood for NPR
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Nate Smallwood for NPR
Preston Shimer, 84.

Looking at the same evidence, Rosalie Bablak, an 86-year-old Republican who lives in the Passavant Community, had concerns: "We have someone who sits in the Oval Office who's going to touch the button if we're going to have nuclear war. I would like someone who's more quickly thinking."

Bablak said younger people were more frightened of aging than they should be. "The passage of life is good and it's good being old," she said. "We have fun." But she said the wisdom of older politicians is better suited to advisory roles than elected office.

"I honestly wish we had younger candidates," she said.

3. Many older voters feel it's time for a new generation of politicians

Susan Hughes, 77, of Mt. Lebanon can't fathom why politicians want to continue to serve into their eighties. "I know my capacity, and I think I have pretty good capacity," she said. "And I wonder how in the world they could not want to retire."

Seniors play pool at Vintage Senior Services in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh in September.
/ Nate Smallwood for NPR
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Nate Smallwood for NPR
Seniors play pool at Vintage Senior Services in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh in September.

Hughes is a Republican and said she favored the policies of the last administration — "the Trump-Pence administration," she emphasizes — but she was bothered by Trump's character. "It's just tearing apart the fabric of our culture, I think," she said. She voted for Biden in 2020.

When it comes to age, she has concerns not just about Biden and Trump, but also other older politicians like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. who has had public health issues this year. Hughes questioned the motive for staying in office. "Is this about power, or is it about service?"

Hughes wasn't the only voter who dreaded the possibility of a Trump-Biden rematch in 2024.

"Advice to both: don't run," said John Fuller, 71, of Marshall Township, a registered Democrat who describes himself as an independent voter. He voted for Biden but isn't sure who he'd choose between the two candidates this time around.

He has questions about Biden's health, but appreciated the sense of order Biden brought to government. "In Trump's administration, there was always consternation, always challenge," he said. "And he was on the news every day."

"It's not good for the country," said 71-year-old Ahmad Zaghab, an independent voter, on a break between chair yoga and an aquatic fitness class, at the Passavant Community's Abundant Life Center.

But he said he feels an obligation to vote, and if he's faced with a choice between the two previous presidents next fall, he said, "I just close my eyes and do it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ahmad Zaghab follows instruction from Sally Thomas during an aqua fitness class at Passavant Community Abundant Life Center in Zelienople in September.
/ Nate Smallwood for NPR
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Nate Smallwood for NPR
Ahmad Zaghab follows instruction from Sally Thomas during an aqua fitness class at Passavant Community Abundant Life Center in Zelienople in September.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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