May 23, 2020 - Politics & Policy

What's driving Biden's strength with seniors

Illustration of a senior woman's hand holding a Biden flag

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump's declining support among older voters since the coronavirus took hold is well documented, but new data offers a clearer understanding of why that's happening — and how it could impact the November election.

The big picture: Among the 65+ crowd, it's women driving the exodus. Joe Biden's appeal with senior men climbed during his surprise comeback to be the presumed Democratic nominee, but not necessarily at Trump's expense — and new polling suggests it may be ebbing in any case.

  • The coronavirus matters, but so does health care policy overall.

By the numbers: A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday shows Biden leading Trump by 22 points among female voters 65+, while Trump leads Biden by 11 points among older men. That's what gets Biden to a 10-point overall lead over the president among seniors.

  • "There is a big gender gap among seniors in the matchup, just as there is among all registered voters," says poll director Doug Schwartz. "Older women really like Joe Biden, and they really don’t like Donald Trump." 
  • Since February, Quinnipiac data also shows Biden has increased his lead over Trump with independent 65+ voters, from seven to 20 points.

Between the lines: The seeds were planted years ago. Biden has led Trump with seniors in theoretical matchups dating back to 2015. Trump's prospects with seniors have depended to a large degree on the alternative.

  • The 65+ vote helped put Trump over the top in 2016. Those voters made up more than a fourth of the electorate and went for Trump over Hillary Clinton, 53% to 44%, the Pew Research Center found.
  • Biden has a +12-point favorability standing among seniors; at the same point in the cycle four years ago, Clinton's favorability with seniors was running a deficit of -13, per Quinnipiac.
  • A Monmouth University poll out last week shows another strength Biden has over Clinton: He's winning voters who don't like either of the major party nominees by more than 40 percentage points. In 2016, Clinton lost them to Trump by 17 percentage points.
  • Republicans have won seniors by 5-12 percentage points since the 2000 election, but Trump's margin of victory with them in '16 was roughly half of what Romney earned the cycle before — and the lowest for any GOP nominee in nearly two decades.
  • But the coronavirus does look to be hurting Trump with seniors. A recent Morning Consult poll showed Trump dropped 20 percentage points in a month in how seniors view his handling of the crisis.

The other side: “Just like anyone else, senior citizens see President Trump leading the nation during the coronavirus response," Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said in response to these findings. "Seniors also care about who can restore the economy, who will stand up to China, and who will put America first in every decision."

  • "They care about a strong military, looking after veterans, and protecting Social Security and Medicare. President Trump wins on all those issues and Joe Biden’s record is abysmal.”

What's next: AARP will conduct battleground polling later this year to understand what's motivating seniors, says Nancy LeaMond, the group's executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer.

  • The coronavirus has elevated members' concerns about nursing home safety and demands for more transparency and protections for patients as well as tax relief for family caregivers.
  • In 2016, she says, candidate Trump had said "very clearly he wasn’t going to cut Social Security, he wasn’t going to cut Medicare."
  • But by 2018, "It was very clear that the senior vote was kind of up for grabs. The older voter voted to put Donald Trump in the White House, and then in 2018 the older voter moved towards the Democrats. I don’t think it’s a direct referendum. But it was very interesting."

Don't forget: According to the 2020 Almanac of American Politics, many of the most important swing states (Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida) have at least slightly larger shares of 65 and older residents than the national average.

  • States like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan are also among the hardest hit by the coronavirus.
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