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AARP Volunteers Hold Presidential Hopefuls’ Feet to the Fire 

During campaign stops, candidates pressed on key issues, from caregiving to Social Security 

spinner image a a r p volunteers marc lacroix mary roberge and karen ulmer dorsch
AARP New Hampshire volunteers Marc Lacroix, Mary Roberge and Karen Ulmer Dorsch attend a campaign event for former Gov. Nikki Haley at the Polish American Citizen Club Hall in Nashua, New Hampshire, on Nov. 2, 2023.
Sophie Park

When former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie strode into VFW Post 8641 in Merrimack, New Hampshire, in November, he was greeted by a sea of red fleece jackets in the front row. And emblazoned on the chest of every scarlet-clad occupant of the seats was a familiar symbol: AARP.

At candidate nights throughout the Granite State, AARP volunteers have fanned out, determined to ask presidential hopefuls courting their votes what they would do about the most important issues facing older Americans today, in particular Social Security and caregiving. This army of volunteers is part of AARP’s voter engagement initiative, which has already kicked off in states with early primaries and will expand to every state and U.S. territory as the 2024 election nears.

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Mary Roberge, 76, is a team captain for New Hampshire volunteers. Since the beginning of 2023, she figures she’s been to more than 35 events. She marshals her team to attend candidate stops throughout the state, making sure folks arrive early to get front-row seats so candidates are looking right at AARP volunteers. She’s convinced her presence, and that of her fellow volunteers, makes a difference.

“It makes these issues real,” Roberge says. “It’s not just something that you read or have seen on the news. We’re right there. We’re talking about it, and we’re telling our stories.” 

spinner image mary roberge is an a a r p volunteer team captain she is sitting in a volunteer training wearing a red shirt with her red a a r p fleece jacket on the back of her chair
Mary Roberge
Tony Loung

Roberge and her team always come armed with questions for the candidate. Sometimes they get to ask them, and even when they don’t their presence makes an impact. The candidate sees them and addresses issues of top importance to older Americans without being prompted. Christie prefaced his remarks in Merrimack about Social Security with: “This is for our folks sitting in the front row.” AARP’s message was received. Christie dropped out of the race for the presidency on Jan. 10, 2024. 

Roberge works at the Moore Center in Manchester, New Hampshire, which serves people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. She helps make sure the clients have the health insurance benefits they need. She believes going to candidate events is her way of shining a light on what’s important to all older adults.

“When you get to ask a question, you feel like you are getting an answer not only for yourself but also for all the 50-plus, which is why we are there,” Roberge says. And at some point, she adds, “issues like Social Security, Medicare and prescription drugs affect everybody.”

Holding feet to the fire

When the candidates first began crisscrossing the state, Marc Lacroix says he didn’t hear them talking about Social Security, Medicare or other issues important to seniors. Now they are. “They see us, so in their opening remarks they talk about Social Security,” says Lacroix, 69, also a team captain.

Volunteering with AARP has been an extension of Lacroix’s work as an advocate for the American Physical Therapy Association. A retired physical therapist and health care manager, Lacroix says elected officials at all levels listen when they realize New Hampshire volunteers like him are representing a quarter of a million AARP members in the state.

New Hampshire voters put a premium on one-on-one interaction with people who want their support at the polls. So, Lacroix says, even when they don’t get a question in, they can button-hole a candidate and make the pitch for them to pay attention to the issues for which AARP is fighting.

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And as important as getting the candidate to pay attention to AARP’s issues, says Lacroix, is the effect a volunteer’s question can have on the other voters who are attending a town hall or candidate forum.

“It makes people aware. We tell them we’re interested in protecting Medicare and Social Security,” Lacroix says. Often, the people in the audience don’t know, for example, that the programs’ solvency could be in danger down the road if Congress doesn’t act.

“It’s like a call to arms,” Lacroix says. “We make people aware, and hopefully they spread the news and it gets momentum going to have people we elect do something about it.”

Making a difference

Before volunteers go to candidate events to represent AARP, they attend training to ensure that they know what AARP’s message is and how best to broach it with candidates. AARP staff members stress that the organization is nonpartisan, regardless of a volunteer’s own political views, and emphasize the importance of personalizing the questions posed to candidates and elected officials.

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“At the end of the day, because folks like you are willing to devote your time and energy and effort is the only way we can be successful,” John Hishta, AARP senior vice president for campaigns, told a group of volunteers at a day-long voter engagement training in Manchester this fall. We don’t endorse; we don’t contribute money [to candidates],” Hishta said. “But we have the most powerful voting bloc in the country and the largest and strongest membership in the country. And politicians know that.”

spinner image john hishta the senior vice president for campaigns with a a r p is standing in front of a stage in a large room conducting a training for election volunteers
AARP Senior Vice President for Campaigns John Hishta addresses a voter education training session for New Hampshire volunteers.
Tony Loung

Each AARP state office tailors its candidate engagement efforts to what works in its state. These volunteer efforts to highlight AARP’s issues will continue through the election season and even after candidates get elected.

“Social Security and Medicare may not be in the news every day because there are so many issues out there right now,” says Christina FitzPatrick, AARP New Hampshire state director. “So, if AARP isn’t going to raise the question of what leaders are going to do to protect Social Security and Medicare, there is no other group that would do that.”

FitzPatrick points to high prescription drug prices as an “example of an issue that was a sleeper but got elevated in large measure because of AARP,” recalling how in past elections the volunteers wore red T-shirts proclaiming “Stop Rx Greed” or “Fair Rx Prices Now.”  Those years-long campaigns culminated in a new prescription drug law that is already starting to lower how much older Americans pay for their medications. 

At a town hall in Hampton, New Hampshire, Christie made it clear that AARP’s presence at his campaign events has influenced his thinking about issues dear to older Americans. 

“I knew about [Social Security] before, and I had opinions about it beforehand,” Christie said. “But folks in the red fleeces show up at every one of my town hall meetings and they’re wearing their AARP buttons. And even if they don’t ask a question, they’re talking to me by their presence.”

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