Will Bernie's New-School Approach Woo Old-Schoolers?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because #FeelingTheBern could be contagious — and help swing key states.
By Nick Fouriezos
Neil Collesidis’s hands were in his pockets, a Bernie Sanders sign tucked under his arm. Next to him, Maryclare Heffernan wrapped herself in a dark gray scarf and slipped on thick, hipster-ish glasses. He joined each new chant. She pulled out her iPhone 6 to snap a photo, her left wrist dangling silver bracelets and a bohemian tree-of-life charm. Once strangers, they were now united, both feeling the Bern.
Did we mention they’re baby boomers?
Sanders wants a revolution, but he can’t do it by just mobilizing millennials — and so he’s adding seniors like Collesidis and 65-year-old Heffernan to his guest list. In recent weeks, the Brooklyn-born straight talker has sharpened his pitch to the elderly, name-checking issues like Social Security and end-of-life health costs and dispatching key surrogates to old folks’ homes. He recently challenged Hillary Clinton to match his pledge not just to preserve retirement benefits but also to expand them. (Clinton tweeted that she’d defend and expand Social Security, as always, and not cut it.) Before that, his campaign was caught distributing fliers that suggested support from the AARP, which doesn’t endorse candidates. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The aggressiveness suggests Sanders is tired of losing the nation’s most active voting bloc — the 65-plus crew, which favored Clinton by a whopping 43 percentage points in her slight win in the Iowa caucus. Currently, seniors make up the lone age group where Sanders isn’t leading in New Hampshire; outside the Granite State, that deficit could prove lethal. Given their reliable turnout, Sanders is “going to have to start surging among those senior voters,” says Scott Spradling, a New Hampshire–based political message strategist.
He’s not Johnny-come-lately to these issues.
Bruce Koeppl, an adviser to Sanders
Though Sanders is 74, in many ways he is a tough sell to his own peer group. Can a self-proclaimed socialist who promises legalized weed and social upheaval win the votes of those who are perhaps more concerned with maintaining their quality of life? Even if voters can get past that whole socialism thing, what about the fact that, to many older voters, Clinton seems to have a better chance at turning rhetoric into policy? “As you get older, you lose some of your idealism,” says a 64-year-old software programmer from Nashua. “You become more pragmatic.”
But that hasn’t stopped Sanders from trying to win the Social Security sect. In frostbitten Exeter last week, Sanders’s first talking point was to explain his senior strategy. His knuckles popped as he gripped the podium with one clenched fist, shaking his other in that special kind of fury he typically reserves for “the 1 percent.” Except he was talking about all the grannies forced to live on $12,000 a year, as Republicans continue to argue that retirement benefits need to be further cut or risk running out. Those criticisms are alarmist in his view; he claims that the retirement fund, with its $2.8 trillion surplus, can pay every benefit owed for almost two decades. His words packed extra resonance in the crowded town hall, where seven score and 16 years earlier Abraham Lincoln also stood claiming to defend the rights of ordinary citizens.
Elder issues — Medicare, medication costs and Social Security — may sound like new concerns for Sanders. They’re not. In 1999, Sanders, then a congressman, took a bus of sick Americans across the border to show how the same drugs could be bought more cheaply in Canada. “I will never forget the tears in the eyes of women” who were able to buy the breast cancer drug tamoxifen at one-tenth of the price they were paying in the U.S., Sanders said when he announced a bill in September to reduce drug prices and allow medicine imports from Canada. Soon after, Clinton also said she supports a law to allow imports. “He’s not Johnny-come-lately to these issues,” says Bruce Koeppl, a senior adviser for Sanders on aging issues who previously worked for the AARP for almost 30 years.
One of the ways Sanders has tried to win over seniors is by turning to a top surrogate on a secret mission. Deep in a sprawling complex that houses almost 600 elderly veterans, two Bernie-bedazzled volunteers in their twenties with beanies and scraggly beards greeted guests as they filed into a room with their walkers. Ben & Jerry co-founder Jerry Greenfield, waving a lit, neon purple sign, was there to talk up Bernie’s plan to scrap the payroll income tax cap so he could tax the wealthy and further fund Social Security. The event might have been too covert, though: Notice about it was posted online but not in official campaign releases to the media, and fewer than 15 people showed up. And folks were still skeptical. “I’m worried now that the federal government, in its indebtedness, will go into it more with Social Security. How will it be stopped?” a balding man, wearing a brown fisherman’s jacket, asked from his wheelchair.
Despite the tepid reception at some events, Sanders has won over certain voters in this coveted demographic. Heffernan, for one, said her head gets Clinton, but her heart just isn’t there — and she has to go with her heart. After wrapping her coat around her arm and telling Collesidis how nice it was to meet him at the Sanders event, Heffernan said, “I think I know who I’m voting for.”