The Gray Revolt

Older voters were key to Donald Trump’s 2016 coalition. Now they’re abandoning him.

The big polling news over the weekend came from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal post-debate poll showing Joe Biden with a 14-point lead over Donald Trump. That’s up from an eight-point lead in their previous poll. Nate Silver noted that this poll is usually close to the national averages. It’s not likely to be an outlier. 

What is even more significant than the topline number, however, is that Trump’s biggest decline came from seniors, where Biden leads by 27 points (62-35). While that is dramatic, other national and state polls have shown Biden with a sizable lead among seniors. That is a huge reversal from 2016 when Trump won with voters who were over 65 by seven points.

Seniors are, of course, among the most formidable forces in American politics because they vote. Four years ago, 71 percent of voters over 65 cast a ballot—compared to 46 percent in the 18-29 age group. About 17 percent of America’s adults are seniors, but they make up 25 percent of this country’s registered voters, giving them an outsized role in any election. In addition, this is a voting bloc that could swing the election in several battleground states, particularly Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. 

According to conventional wisdom, the reason for Trump’s declining support among seniors is his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. The president ignored the issue initially, while some of his Republican colleagues suggested that older Americans, who are more likely to die if they contract COVID-19, can be sacrificed in order to jump-start the economy. In July and August 2020, 11 nursing home residents died every hour nationally, according to a recent congressional report co-authored by Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa). 

Beyond that, many seniors have followed the science-based guidelines and have given up everything from attending the funerals of loved ones to hugging their grandchildren. They’ve done this while watching Trump flout the rules, mock those who adhere to them, and eventually contract COVID himself.

Because this pandemic has so dramatically affected seniors personally, journalist Walter Shapiro suggests that they might have been tracking Trump’s lies and incompetence more closely than they did his other actions over the previous three years. 

But Biden has actually held an advantage among seniors since last summer, indicating that the coronavirus isn’t the only factor. To understand why, it is helpful to remember that the group we refer to as “seniors” can actually be broken down into subsets, as Pew Research did back in 2012.

Those who turned 18 during the Nixon administration – a segment of older Baby Boomers – have tended to be slightly more Democratic than average in their voting. Those who came of age during the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson years – mostly members of the Silent generation and the very oldest of the Baby Boomers –have tended to be more Republican than the average.

As the number of seniors who came of age during the Eisenhower years fades, the slightly more Democratic Boomers are filling the ranks, adding 10,000 people to the 65+ age group per day. In other words, the senior cohort that voted for Trump in 2016 has changed dramatically. That alone could explain why Biden held a lead of about five points initially. 

But Biden’s lead has continued to grow. In addition to Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic, we can perhaps credit those who have provided a permission structure for Republicans to vote for Biden, like the bipartisan group of 489 national security officials who endorsed the former vice president. Trump’s remarks disparaging those in the military would have resonated more profoundly with seniors and seem to have led to a public endorsement by Cindy McCain, 66, the wife of the 2008 Republican nominee.

Another blow to Trump’s clout with seniors came from the first (and perhaps the last)  Trump-Biden debate. Reacting to Biden’s 27-point lead among seniors in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, journalist Ron Brownstein pointed out that “they have seen enough other presidents to recognize how aberrant his behavior is; the debate was a 90-minute testimonial to that.” As a source told Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair, “The thing about the debate is people got to see why no one that has any integrity can work for Trump. This is what Trump is like in the Oval Office every day.” Even Fox News couldn’t hide that reality from viewers. 

Presenting a contrast, Biden has gained a reputation as a stable moderate who actually cares about people at a time when all of us, including seniors, are ready for a break from bullying and chaos. 

We don’t know yet how seniors will be affected by the fact that the president has contracted COVID-19. But if Biden continues to lead Trump among voters 65 and older by these margins, it is difficult to imagine any path to reelection for the president.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.