The Villages, Florida — Polls over the last few months have shown a slow but slightly worrisome trend for Mitt Romney: While numbers vary from week to week, his lead among senior citizens, once a solid 20 points, has shrunk by more than ten points.
His campaign is counting on support from voters like Mario Conte, a retired postal worker and political independent who says he hasn’t really liked any politician since Colin Powell, the retired general who many Americans hoped would run as the Republican presidential candidate in 1996.
Conte is worried about the economy, and his retirement savings; he rates Barack Obama’s job performance as “not very good, to be honest.”
But there’s a hitch: Conte also relies on Social Security and Medicare. “Without Social Security, I believe my wife and I… we couldn’t have lived in Florida. We would have had to move out and find a smaller home,” he told me.
Romney has proposed significant changes to both programs. His running mate, Paul Ryan, goes even further: He has been an outspoken advocate for privatizing Medicare, turning it into a scheme where the government hands out vouchers to help cover the costs of private insurance.
So when November 6 rolls around, Conte plans to vote for Obama.
“[Romney and Ryan] should leave Social Security alone, leave Medicare alone. Don’t touch it,” he says angrily. “They don’t even know what Medicare is, because they’re so rich… it’s got to be saved for the people.”
The Villages is the largest retirement community in the world, a sprawling collection of homes, shops and golf courses in languid central Florida. It has been called “Disney World for Adults”: Residents gather in places like “Spanish Springs Square,” an ersatz Spanish plaza with pastel stucco walls (and all the authenticity of Epcot).
Other parts of the town try to evoke the nostalgia of mid-20th century America. There is a faux-vintage movie theatre, the Rialto, and an old-timey “Western-style opera house,” and a bandstand with live entertainment each night (though when I visited the singer was crooning Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” which did dispel the Mayfield illusion just a bit).
And there was a certain conservative nostalgia amongst many of the residents, a sense that America had gotten onto the wrong track – something Mitt Romney tried to tap into during his August speech at the Republican National Convention, when he promised to restore the “America won for us by the greatest generation,” the men and women who fought World War II (and now, not coincidentally, live in places like The Villages).
“We’ve got to go back to basics,” said Elwood Brackney, 83, a retired construction worker from Pennsylvania. “We’ve lost everything that we had, we haven’t got any manufacturing. We are at a point in our life where America is not like it was. We need to go backwards.”
The town is, not surprisingly, a conservative stronghold, home to thousands of wealthy retirees, a demographic bloc that has traditionally voted Republican. More than 50 per cent of the residents here are registered Republicans, compared to 36 per cent statewide.
The town’s billionaire developer, H Gary Morse, is a major fundraiser for Romney’s campaign. He owns the local newspaper, which publishes exclusively conservative columnists and gives little coverage to visiting Democratic politicians, according to locals.
Politics here occasionally descend into pettiness: One resident, who asked not to be named, said someone tore the Obama sticker off his golf cart in 2008.
But this year, it seems, the town’s broadly conservative leanings are colliding with more parochial concerns. Residents might not like Obama – but many are more concerned with America’s suddenly-vulnerable entitlement programs.
“They’ve been trying to do this for years,” Brackney said, referring to the plans to overhaul Social Security and Medicare. “They’ve got to leave this alone. People count on that… they’re everything when you’re retired!”
A Reuters-Ipsos poll released on September 27 found that Romney’s lead among seniors has dropped to less than four points, compared to 20 points a few months ago. Those numbers have edged back up – a Washington Post poll from October 13 showed a six-point lead – but remain well below this summer’s levels.
The movement has not been as dramatic in Florida, though some recent polls actually showed Obama with a slight edge among seniors here – 48 per cent to Romney’s 47 per cent, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser survey. Romney was leading that demographic by a six-point margin just a month ago.
The reason for the shift is almost certainly Medicare, which has become a central issue in the campaign ever since Romney picked Ryan. Fifty per cent of Florida seniors said Medicare is an “extremely important” issue in this election, second only to the economy, according to one survey.
And a slim plurality – 49 per cent – say Obama would do a better job “determining the future of the Medicare program,” compared to 45 per cent for Romney. That, too, is a reversal from just a few weeks ago.
“They worry me,” said Charles Woodward, 76, a retired army veteran from Maine whose wife relies on Medicare. “If you did away with Medicare, half the people in The Villages would be disabled.”
Not everyone here was so concerned, of course. Jim Stueber, 75, a retired state trooper from New Jersey, dismissed the talk of Ryan’s Medicare plan as “rhetoric” from the Democrats. In fact, he said he was more worried about Obama, because the president’s health care reform legislation would allegedly cut $716bn from Medicare.
(This has become a common Republican talking point, and it’s true, though a bit misleading: The law does trim $716bn in Medicare spending over the next decade, but it does so by lowering the reimbursement rates paid to hospitals and private insurance companies; it does not cut benefits for Medicare recipients.)
“I think he’s got a nice running mate in Ryan,” Stueber said. “We’re ready for a change… [they] should take care of the budget, in regards to what the federal government is spending.”
But, like so many of the Republicans I met across the country, he was qualified in his endorsement of Romney. “I don’t know that he’s the right choice, but I’m not in favour of Obama,” he said. “I think there is possibly a better choice.”
“But I don’t know who that might be,” he added with a shrug.