Donald Trump’s Big Problem with Senior Voters

The standard way of looking at Donald Trumps narrow Electoral College victory, in 2016, is through the realm of geography: by eking out victories in the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, he overcame a deficit of about 2.9 million ballots in the popular vote. This narrative is perfectly accurate, but it isn’t the only way to analyze what happened. Another key to Trump’s success was his strong support among older voters, who tend to turn out in large numbers, despite being a relatively small part of the electorate.

Among voters aged forty-four and under, Hillary Clinton bested Trump by fourteen percentage points, according to exit polls. But Trump carried voters between the ages of fifty and sixty-four by eight percentage points, and voters aged sixty-five or older by seven points. State by state, the numbers varied. He led Clinton among voters aged sixty-five and over by four points in Michigan, by ten points in Pennsylvania, and by one point in Wisconsin. Given the thin margins of victory that Trump enjoyed in these states, support from seniors was essential to the majority he achieved in the Electoral College.

This year, retaining the support of seniors is obviously central to Trump’s reelection chances. But a number of polls released this week show that he has slipped badly in this key demographic. According to a survey from the New York Times and Siena College, he is now running two points behind Joe Biden at the national level among voters aged sixty-five and over. In Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, he is trailing Biden by double digits.

If you compare the Trump-Biden matchups from the new Times surveys to the Trump-Clinton matchup in the network-sponsored exit polls from 2016, the contrast couldn’t be starker. In Michigan, Trump is now trailing Biden by twelve percentage points among senior voters, a swing of sixteen points relative to 2016; in Pennsylvania, he is behind by eighteen points, a swing of twenty-eight points; and in Wisconsin, he is down by twenty-one points, a swing of twenty-two points. Even allowing for some possible polling errors, these are big differences.

And other surveys of the battleground states show a similar shift. A recent poll from Fox News shows Trump trailing Biden by one point in Florida among voters aged sixty-five and over. In 2016, Trump carried seniors in the Sunshine State by seventeen points. In North Carolina in 2016, Trump carried the senior vote by twenty-three points. The Fox News poll shows him leading Biden by just four points there.

At least some of Trump’s troubles with seniors appear to emanate from his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed tens of thousands of elderly Americans. In an Economist-YouGov poll that was released this week, sixty per cent of seniors said that protecting Americans from the health effects of covid-19 should be the main concern, versus forty per cent who said that protecting Americans from the pandemic’s economic effects should be the priority. Meanwhile, the researchers from the Times and Siena College found that fifty-six per cent of seniors in Michigan disapprove of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, versus forty per cent who approve; in Pennsylvania, fifty-three per cent disapprove, and forty-one per cent approve; and in Wisconsin, sixty per cent disapprove, and thirty-seven per cent approve. Numbers like these amount to a resounding vote of no confidence in Trump’s response to the virus.

It would be a mistake, however, to attribute all of Trump’s problems with older voters to covid-19. In some places, there was evidence even before the pandemic that many seniors preferred Biden to him. For example, the Times’s previous poll of battleground states, which was carried out last November, showed the former Vice-President with a thirteen-point lead over Trump among seniors in Michigan, and a twelve-point lead among seniors in Wisconsin.

One of the strongest arguments for Biden’s candidacy all along has been his appeal in states that put Trump over the top in 2016. But there is also evidence of Trump slipping in areas where earlier polls showed him ahead of Biden. For instance, the Times-Siena survey from November showed Trump leading Biden by ten points among seniors in Pennsylvania, whereas the latest version of this poll shows Biden well ahead.

Looking across all of the recent polls, a reasonable interpretation is that Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic has exacerbated seniors’ concerns about his performance as President and made Biden look even more attractive by comparison. The incendiary manner in which Trump responded to the wave of protests following the killing of George Floyd seems to have had a similar effect. At the national level, according to the Times-Siena survey, fifty-two per cent of voters aged sixty-five and over disapprove of Trump’s response, and just forty per cent approve. In some battleground states, the negative assessment of Trump’s response is even more striking, the times polls found. In Michigan, fifty-eight per cent of seniors disapprove. In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, sixty per cent disapprove.

It almost goes without saying that this new polling data is alarming for the White House. But it is important to emphasize three other points. There are still four months to go until the election; polls provide a snapshot rather than a prediction; and the latest surveys show that voters, including senior voters, still give Trump positive marks on economics, which will surely be a key election issue. A CNBC All-America Economic Survey that was released this week shows Trump trailing Biden by nine points, but it also shows the President with a six-point lead on the question of which candidate has the better policies for the economy. In the Times-Siena national poll, fifty-four per cent of seniors approved of Trump’s handling of the economy, and forty-two per cent disapproved. The findings in the battleground-state polls were similar.

The White House will take some crumbs of comfort from these findings. But they don’t detract from the reality that, particularly in some of the states on which the election will hinge, Trump has a serious problem with a key voting bloc. If he can’t significantly improve his standing with seniors, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for him to craft even the slimmest of victories in the Electoral College.



John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. He also writes a column about politics, economics, and more for newyorker.com.




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