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Friday, February 16, 2024

Georgia voters shrug off Biden-Trump age question as 2024 contest comes into focus

Georgia voters shrug off Biden-Trump age question as 2024 contest comes into focus

The 10% of voters who could decide the race are swayed more by policies than by age concerns in the likely presidential match

Election stickers showing a peach and the words 'I'm a Georgia voter.'
Georgia is often described as a politically purple state, with Democrats and Republicans competing in nearly equal numbers. Photograph: Megan Varner/Getty Images

“Next week, Frank Stovall turns 103. The retired Lockheed engineer has until recently been a lifelong Atlantan, is a veteran of two wars, and is old enough to remember when Republicans were rare in Georgia.

“Well, yes, I think they’re both healthy,” Stovall said, when asked at the Church at Wieuca in Buckhead about the mental fitness for office of President Joe Bidenand former president Donald Trump. “I’m a Republican, but I’m not going to vote for Trump, if I can help it. I hate to say this, but I think he was a traitor to the country on January 6.

“Biden? I’ve been really impressed with him on everything except the border thing. But yeah, I think Biden is a good man. If he got mental lapses … goodness, most of us do when you get a few years on you.”

Buckhead, an affluent neighborhood of Atlanta, is split between Republicans and Democrats. Georgia is often described as a politically purple state, with strong Democrats and strong Republicans competing to be seen in nearly equal numbers – though spaces where they cohabitate are scarce.

So when a special prosecutor at the Department of Justice released a report last week alleging striking gaps in Biden’s memory and mental acuity, political pundits jumped to assess how the issue of age will affect the American presidential election in places like this. But in the US, broad opinions matter much less than those of the relatively small number of persuadable voters.

“Basically, you’re catering to a million voters, in a few states,” said Clarence Blalock, a political consultant in Georgia who is competing in the Democratic primary to challenge Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. The average age of voters tends to be older than the general public, he said, and any strategy questioning the competence of the president – or Donald Trump – due to age may backfire. “They may feel insulted by it. I don’t think it’s a good strategy.”

Certainly, many on the right saw in the report’s accusations a confirmation of what they already believe about Biden – that he is largely a figurehead, with decisions being made by others. “I feel sorry for him,” said Chris Swindell, 68, a self-described libertarian from Marietta. “He comes out, and he’s not running the country. The people in the background are running the country.”

But few will flip their votes over the age issue, Blalock said. He noted that most partisans had already decided to overlook the flaws of their own candidates.

One of those is Jimmy Bennett, 67, a staunch Republican and Trump voter.

“Listen, we know a lot of older people that are on the money with their mindset,” said Bennett over a slice of pie at Matthew’s Cafeteria in politically ecumenical Tucker, Georgia.

“But if they start making these crazy decisions, and start doing things way off, and then you can see the degrade, then that’s the time to step in.”

Only about 10% of voters in Georgia consider changing their votes for any reason at all, and no matter who is running. In 2022, despite the threats of defection by stalwart Trump supporters, the Republican governor, Brian Kemp, defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by about 300,000 votes out of roughly 4m ballots, but on the same day, the Democratic senator Raphael Warnock beat his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, by about 40,000 votes (and later won a runoff by about 100,000).

“We’re never going to have a 60-40 election,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist and political commentator here. “We wouldn’t have a 60-40 election if Biden died and people were voting for a dead person.”

Nonetheless, the age issue is top of mind for Americans of both parties, he said, consistently ranking along with immigration and the economy as the main concerns voters express. In that regard, the special prosecutor’s report was a blow to the Biden campaign. “Democrats are hoping that independent voters are coming to Biden because they don’t like Trump. The [age] issue nullifies some of that Democratic advantage,” Robinson said.

“The Biden campaign has, in some way, to provide optics that he’s healthy mentally and physically – and that’s a risk.”

But Trump has to be careful too, Robinson said. “The Democrats are trying to create an equivalency there. [Trump] has to avoid providing Democrats with ammo showing equivalent incapacity.”

That may prove difficult, given Trump’s own propensity for mental lapses – for every time Biden confuses a Macron with a MitterrandTrump takes a Haley for a Pelosi – and equally advanced age: currently 81 and 77, both Biden and Trump would, if elected, be the oldest presidents ever.

“I think Donald Trump is a fool and an idiot, and I think he has no mental acuity – period – because he doesn’t live in a world of reality. He lives in a fantasy world where facts are not facts,” said Jackie Goodman, 74, a fourth-generation Atlantan.

For Goodman, her choice is about policy – she identifies as a pro-choice voter – and less about either man running.

“I wish we could have a younger candidate who has a lot more vitality,” she admits. “But I definitely would not vote Republican – and I definitely would not vote for Trump.”

Indeed, the question may be less about whether the age issue makes anyone switch their vote, but rather if it makes voters simply check out, said Blalock. Given the importance of turnout in US elections, how many Americans decide not to vote at all could prove crucial.

“The idea that Biden doesn’t have it together, so I’m going to vote for Trump … I mean, do people think Trump has it together [either]?” he asked.

“Or [do they] just stay home?”

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