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Whether for Obama or Romney, senior citizens exercise political muscle

On a recent Sunday morning, members of Brookhaven at Lexington’s chapter of Grandmothers for Obama bundle cards to be sent to voters in swing states.

Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe

On a recent Sunday morning, members of Brookhaven at Lexington’s chapter of Grandmothers for Obama bundle cards to be sent to voters in swing states.

At Brookhaven, a retirement community in Lexington, women in their 80s and 90s play bridge and mah-jongg, stretch their arms and legs in tai chi class, and eat low-sugar desserts to contend with their diabetes.

But Brookhaven at Lexington is also the epicenter of Grandmothers for Obama, an enterprising organization of more than 600 women nationwide that is reaching tens of thousands of older voters in swing states this fall with carefully worded, hand-signed, hand-stamped postcards.

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“At our age and stage, the telephone’s difficult,” said Margot Lindsay, 87, a Brookhaven resident and grandmother of three who founded the group with one of her neighbors in the Waltham Street complex. “And certainly ringing doorbells is not part of our genes anymore.”

Elaine Rothman, 85, reached between Mary Lou Touart, 89, (left) and Agnes Burke, 84, to collect pro-Obama postcards.  Both President Obama and Mitt Romney are getting help from older supporters as they compete for the senior-citizen vote on Nov. 6.

Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe

Elaine Rothman, 85, reached between Mary Lou Touart, 89, (left) and Agnes Burke, 84, to collect pro-Obama postcards. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney are getting help from older supporters as they compete for the senior-citizen vote on Nov. 6.

President Obama and Mitt Romney are competing fiercely for the senior citizens vote, which has accounted for about 16 percent of the turnout in recent presidential elections, according to Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution based in Washington, D.C. In the past two elections, the majority of voters age 65 and older backed Republicans: In 2008, John McCain beat Obama among seniors by a margin of 8 percentage points; in 2004, President George W. Bush beat John Kerry among seniors by 5 percentage points.

But this year a few more seniors might be leaning Democratic.

In a recent Pew poll, 48 percent of likely senior voters said they favored Romney, while 46 percent said they favored Obama. “If Obama can peel off some of Romney’s support in this age group, it certainly would be an important thing for him,” Doherty said.

On a recent Sunday morning, Lindsay and a dozen other leaders of Grandmothers for Obama gathered around a table in Brookhaven to bundle up copies of their most recent postcard, which they designed after watching the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

“What kind of America do you want? The choice is clear,” says the bright yellow card with black type. With Obama, it says, “We’re all in this together.” With Romney: “You’re on your own!”

The women were planning to distribute the bundles to other Grandmothers for Obama chapters, where members would inscribe each card with a handwritten message and a signature. One group leader, Muriel Finegold of Boston, said she generally writes, “For the sake of our children and grandchildren, please join me in voting for Obama.”

“If you write on it, people are more apt to pay attention,” said Finegold, a retired social worker who has been volunteering on campaigns since 1952, when she knocked on doors for Adlai Stevenson.

Elsewhere, other groups of women and senior citizens have formed to support Romney. In April, in response to Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen’s comment on CNN that the GOP candidate’s wife, Ann Romney, had “never worked a day in her life,” the campaign launched Moms for Mitt, a Facebook community that now has more than 90,000 members and hosts vibrant political discussions daily, according to a campaign staff member.

Last week, the campaign announced the formation of Florida Seniors for Romney, a coalition of volunteers who are knocking on doors, making phone calls, and working office shifts. The group’s chairwoman is Betty Ryan Douglas, 78, mother of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and a resident of south Florida.

“Florida seniors know that Mitt Romney and my son, Paul Ryan, will protect Medicare for me and my generation, and preserve it for Paul’s and my grandchildren’s generations,” Douglas said in a campaign statement. “Florida seniors know we can’t afford four more years of the last four years and we can’t pass on more Obama debt to our children.”

Luanna Devenis, secretary of the Republican Town Committee in Lexington, said she and other Republican senior citizens in the area are busy campaigning on behalf of both Romney and US Senator Scott Brown. Devenis, 84, and her colleagues on the town committee have been mailing out campaign literature, she said, and she knows older Republicans who plan to stand near the polls with posters on Election Day.

Republicans, she said, “are very much a minority here in Lexington . . .  but it makes us work harder.”

The latest Grandmothers for Obama postcard, the second of this campaign season, from Brookhaven is making its way to more than 30,000 households in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Michigan, according to Lexington member Betsy Hatfield, and the organization is preparing to mail a total of about 110,000 cards this year. Some of the Massachusetts grandmothers also sent out a card supporting Democrat Elizabeth Warren’s bid to unseat Brown.

“We’re fortunate to have groups of supporters who use a variety of innovative techniques to reach out to other voters across the country,” said Michael Czin, an Obama campaign spokesman.

Many leaders of the group are longtime activists. Lindsay, whose brother was the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., a prominent civil rights and antiwar protester, said she devoted herself to campaigns for liberal Republicans until the party moved to the right with the nomination of Ronald Reagan. After a hiatus from electoral politics, she found herself inspired by Obama in 2008 because of his rich life experience, and because she felt he shared her values, she said.

Not long after Obama won the nomination four years ago, Lindsay said, she ran into her friend Mary Lou Touart at the mailboxes in Brookhaven. The general election was looking “a little dicey,” Lindsay said, and Touart, then 85, asked her, “What are we going to do?”

In 2008, Grandmothers for Obama comprised mainly Massachusetts women, and they sent postcards chiefly to New Hampshire voters.

A little over a year ago, as they geared up for this fall’s election, the grandmothers decided to take their group national. Members urged friends in other states to get involved, and Finegold hired some Harvard students to help her set up a website and a Facebook page.

“It’s a real joke that I’m the website person,” said Finegold, 76. “My kids just think that’s hysterical.” But, she said, “we’ve all really stretched ourselves.”

This year, there are about 50 Grandmothers for Obama chapters in more than 20 states, according to Hatfield, with new ones forming regularly. The three largest are in Massachusetts: the founding group, at Brookhaven, has about 60 members, the eldest of whom is 98; the chapters in Lincoln and at Orchard Cove, a retirement community in Canton, have nearly as many.

Everyone uses the postcards developed at Brookhaven except the 100 or so Grandmothers for Obama members in Maine, who are sending their own card to voters in the northern part of the state.

The Obama campaign supplies the organization with voter registration lists and addresses.

At the recent bundling meeting in Lexington, the group’s leaders, mostly Brookhaven residents, worked swiftly but paused for conversation and laughs. “We enjoy each other a great deal,” Lindsay said.

Some of them met at Brookhaven; many have known each other for half a century or more. They graduated from Wellesley and Radcliffe and other women’s colleges; married scientists, doctors, and businessmen; and, for the most part, raised their children in the Boston suburbs. A couple of them have great-grandchildren; about half have lost their husbands.

“We’ve experienced a great deal of history and seen the results,” said Anneliese Cohen, 87, a Brookhaven resident and a grandmother of nine. “And we want a better future for our children and grandchildren.”

Olivia Gentile can be reached at oliviagentile@mac.com.
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