It is not every day in 2015 that an Ike joke gets a laugh, but Sen. Bernie Sanders landed the line perfectly.
EPPING, N.H. — Sen. Bernie Sanders, 73, was going strong after speaking for an hour in 90-degree heat Wednesday when he fielded a question from a man who could have been an older brother.
“Would you raise the top marginal tax rate to over 90 percent, as it was in the 1950s, when the middle class and the economy were doing so well?” asked Milt Lauenstein, 89, who had the same white hair and hunched posture as Sanders.
“You mean under the communist Dwight D. Eisenhower?” Sanders quipped about the former president, who, of course, was a Republican, but one who did not oppose high taxes as fiercely as party leaders do now.
It is not every day in 2015 that an Ike joke gets a laugh, but Sanders landed the line perfectly, at least for the roughly 50 older people in the crowd of 200 who came to meet the candidate in an Epping backyard. It was the latest Sanders event to draw a sizable number of registered voters who share Sanders’ cultural reference points — and his age group.
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Sanders, an independent from Vermont, is running an insurgent’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. Spending time with him on the trail is almost to travel back in time: He sprinkles his remarks with “50 years ago” or “40 years ago” as he reminds audiences of the progress in the United States on race relations or gay rights.
At one point in Epping, Sanders drew a “yes” from Nina Capra Jordan when he said that in the first half of the 20th century, the University of California campuses, the City College of New York and other elite institutions charged little or no tuition. (Sanders wants to eliminate tuition at public universities nationwide and pay for it largely with revenue from taxes on Wall Street stock trades.)
Older voters seem to be responding. Some, facing financial strains now, seem especially drawn to the senator’s evoking of an earlier era’s more generous government and strong safety net.
“He’s like FDR,” Marlene Gilman, 80, whispered in Concord, N.H., as Sanders pledged to create more jobs through a trillion-dollar public-works program, a plan that echoes President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Up in polls
At a rally in Vermont on Tuesday and at three events in New Hampshire, older voters made up a sizable minority of the crowds.
Their visibility at his events has been striking because Sanders’ unabashedly progressive message, calling for a “political revolution” to tax the rich and redistribute income, often appeals to idealistic young Americans who do not pay much in the way of taxes. Even some older voters said they were a little surprised to be responding to the fiery, man-the-barricades exhortations of Sanders. But if young people and African Americans identified with Barack Obama during his presidential run in 2008, older Americans said Sanders had struck a chord with them.
“I don’t think he’s too old; he’s articulate and on the ball,” said Leslie Dundon, 71, of Manchester, N.H. “And look, the older you get, the more you realize that life has actually taught you something, and you have something to contribute.”
Sanders, who is only starting to build a national campaign — he has hired a dozen staff members and raised about $4 million toward a $50 million goal over the next 10 months — said support from older Americans was a central part of his strategy to win the Democratic nomination over the party’s front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton. A new survey by Quinnipiac University showed him moving up in the polls, with 15 percent support among Democratic voters, although polls at this point mainly reflect name recognition.
“It is beyond my understanding why the Democratic Party has not focused on the needs of seniors much more than they have — and you better believe I plan to,” Sanders said Wednesday between campaign events in New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary, in February. “The Democratic Party talks about needing the African-American vote, the Hispanic vote, the women’s vote — and all of that is right — but somehow we forget about senior citizens. Well, poverty among seniors is growing in this country, too. I’m going to fight for expanded Social Security benefits for them, and fight for their vote.”
Sanders starts as a longshot candidate against Clinton, who is far ahead of him in polls of Democratic voters. He is among the most liberal members in the race and hardly a power broker with a strong record in the Senate. He is unlikely to come close to Clinton in fundraising — he vowed not to use a super PAC — or media exposure. But the televised debates could help him, as he comes across as a truth-teller and more of a populist than Clinton, and his policies and personality could attract younger and older voters in influential states such as Iowa and New Hampshire who are skeptical of establishment politicians.
Older Americans have long been a crucial voting bloc for presidential candidates, especially in states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that have early nominating contests.
Jordan Derderian Jr., 69, a retiree who turned out to hear Sanders in Concord, said his problems were bigger than entitlement programs. He said he still wanted to earn some money to enjoy his life, but he was having a hard time getting by, mostly on a combination of Social Security and a state pension. Recently, he started working as a driver, earning 50 cents a mile to take people to hospitals.
“This country has quickly become an oligarchy, and Bernie’s the only candidate who will look to create opportunities for the old and the young to have good lives, too,” said Derderian, who added that he planned to volunteer as a political organizer for Sanders.
If Sanders were to win the election, he would be 75 when he took office, becoming the oldest person to assume the presidency. Some fans of Sanders said youth is overrated in such endeavors.
“People say presidents should represent the future, represent the next generation, but what this country needs is a leader who has a deep understanding of its problems,” said Francesca Mihok, 54, a physical therapist who attended a Sanders’ rally in Burlington, Vt., on Tuesday.
His age is not something he dwells on, Sanders said. But he paused for several seconds when asked if he thought of himself as a senior citizen. “What do you think, Jane?” Sanders asked his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, who was sitting nearby.
“Yeah, no,” Sanders said, playfully dismissing the question.
“Since I’ve been thinking about running, you hear ‘Bernie Sanders, 73,’ and I had forgot about that, my age,” he said. “It’s funny, I don’t know how people my age feel about it. … I go to senior groups and I look at them and think, ‘God we’ve got to help the seniors.’ And the truth is, half the people in the room are younger than me.”