For Florida seniors, election is all about economy

Newt Gingrich meets with supporters during a campaign stop in Fort Myers, Fla.
Newt Gingrich meets with supporters during a campaign stop in Fort Myers, Fla. ASSOCIATED PRESS

LADY LAKE, Fla. — People over age 65 are expected to cast about one-third of the votes in Tuesday's Florida presidential primary, and polls say they're breaking strongly for Mitt Romney.

That's just like the rest of the state, and for much the same reason. Seniors care most about the direction of the economy, and they want leadership they regard as strong but not radical or risky.

"Seniors this year are like everybody else. They care about the economy above everything," said Brad Coker, the managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research in Jacksonville.

"Traditional Florida issues have been eclipsed by the 9.9 percent unemployment rate and the housing crisis," Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said.

However, there are some differences between older voters and the rest. They care deeply about the future of Medicare and Social Security, but there's been little mention of those subjects in this season's campaign ads, debates or stump speeches.

They worry more about the prices of houses they bought here with equity from the homes they sold elsewhere. Sluggish financial-market returns limit their incomes. They see the massive federal debt as a serious threat to the well-being of their children and grandchildren.

Florida's Republican seniors, many of whom retired from white-collar jobs elsewhere, understand that market performance, the federal budget, interest rates, Social Security and Medicare are all linked.

"People are taking the long view of the economy," said Don Hahnfeldt, the president of The Villages Homeowners Association.

The Villages is a central Florida senior-citizen community of about 87,000 residents, and a popular spot for candidates. Former Arizona Sen. John McCain spoke here Friday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich addressed a lively rally Sunday and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was to visit Monday evening.

Ask residents their top issue, and they talk about the economy.

Lew Dodson, a Navy employee for 37 years, moved to The Villages two years ago from Virginia Beach, Va. "Most of us come here with a pretty good income," he said, but he wants to make sure that his benefits and any earnings remain stable. He's undecided about his vote, and he's weighing the candidates' economic plans.

Julie Dillen, a retiree who's also undecided, worries about the generations behind her.

"We're part of a generation that worked hard, didn't live extravagantly and saved their money," Dillen said. "Now we have this huge federal debt, and we're going to pass it on to our grandchildren."

Association President Hahnfeldt backs Romney, whom he considers a "Reagan conservative."

Hahnfeldt bought his home eight years ago for $532,000, when The Villages had about 400 new-home sales every month. The highest market value for his house was about $661,305 in 2007. Last year, the value was down to $513,364, according to the Sumter County Property Appraiser.

Gingrich is too raw for many of these Republicans. They tend to prefer Romney's more measured approach — and his perceived electability.

"I am for the most electable conservative," Hahnfeldt said. "I believe that this is Romney because the Republican establishment seems to be leery of Newt, while the Democratic establishment would prefer to run against Newt."

Peter Hanzel, a Wesley Chapel retiree, finds ultraconservatives going "too far" in their political demands.

"I'm churchgoing, but do I go to church every Sunday? No," he said. "It's hard to find a moderate Republican approach anymore, but I like Romney. He's electable."

Polls show strong Romney support. A Quinnipiac University poll Friday through Sunday found him with 48 percent of the senior vote. Gingrich had 30 percent. Trailing were former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, with 10 percent, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, at 4 percent. Among the entire electorate, Romney led 43-29 percent over Gingrich.

Seniors would like to hear more about Social Security and Medicare, particularly how reimbursements to doctors or hospitals could change. But virtually nothing about that is being discussed.

"The Republicans are scared of the subject," said Mike Young, a retired aircraft design engineer.

Campaign officials say that to reach seniors this year, a broader economic approach is crucial.

"These seniors are quite sophisticated," and they care about a broad range of economic issues, said former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, the state chairman for Gingrich's campaign.

"They care about the future of the country for their grandkids," added Florida House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, a Romney backer.


Romney Medicare plan

Gingrich Medicare and health care plans

Quinnipiac poll


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