The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s poor handling of the crisis may lose him the GOP’s most reliable voters

People vote in Ridgeland, Miss., on Nov. 6, 2018.
People vote in Ridgeland, Miss., on Nov. 6, 2018. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

One of the most durable political assets that Republicans have enjoyed throughout the 21st century is their edge among Americans 65 and older, who tend to turn out at the polls more reliably than any other group.

But with President Trump’s inept and erratic handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic, he is rapidly losing support among the age group most vulnerable to its ravages — which is a big warning sign to Republicans as they look to the fall. Trump has also been showing slippage in support among the next-oldest cohort, those 55 and older.

The shift has been showing up in a string of recent polls, reportedly including those that have been conducted by Trump’s own campaign. One of the most striking is a survey of 44 battleground House districts done by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin during the second week of May.

In those districts, voters over 65 said they had supported Trump in 2016 by a 22-point margin — 58 percent to 36 percent.

But this year, those same respondents are practically evenly divided, with 47 percent saying they are planning to vote for the president and 43 percent expressing an intention to cast their ballots for former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. That is an enormous net swing of 18 percentage points.

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“They’re in real trouble if they can’t count on a strong showing with seniors,” said Garin, who did the survey for a client he declined to name. “Trump is blowing what had become an important Republican advantage.”

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Not since Al Gore in 2000 has a Democratic presidential candidate won the 65-and-over vote. And that was a different generation whose political loyalties were formed during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal era.

Practically from the outset of the pandemic, Republicans have been sending a message to older Americans, with varying degrees of subtlety, that their health is not as important as that of the economy. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick actually said it out loud: “Those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”

Patrick’s comment was reminiscent of an infamous statement back in the mid-1980s by then-Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm, a Democrat, who said that terminally ill older Americans have “a duty to die and get out of the way.” Instead of relying on expensive, life-prolonging machines, Lamm said, they should “let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.” Lamm became known as “Governor Gloom.”

Insensitive comments aside, a bigger problem for Trump and the Republicans may be that older Americans have been paying close attention to the president’s handling of the crisis.

[Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

They are the group most attuned to television news, which means they are more likely than younger voters to have seen with their own eyes some of the more bizarre things Trump has done, such as entertaining the possibility that ingesting bleach could cure covid-19. They know, though Trump denies it now, that he was initially dismissive of the dangers posed by the coronavirus. On a daily basis, they have seen his petulance and his blame-shifting, and heard his flat-out lies.

As for turnout, the contrast between seniors and younger voters is striking. In 2016, nearly 71 percent of those 65 and older voted; by comparison, only about 46 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds did.

Older voters also have outsize political clout in some of the states that will be most critical this fall. Florida, where Biden is leading Trump in recent polls, is the most obvious example. But Arizona, where Trump suddenly finds himself struggling, is also home to a lot of retirees. Nearly 20 percent of the population of Pennsylvania, a key swing state, is 65 or older, which is the eighth-highest percentage in the country.

State polling is still scant at this point, however, and much could change in the coming months. It would still be a stretch for Biden to carry a majority of older voters overall. But if he could make a significant dent in Trump’s margin with them, it might give the former vice president a cushion against the very real possibility that younger voters will not show up in the numbers that Democrats hope.

Much is riding, of course, on what happens as Trump and the Republicans push to reopen the country. If they move too quickly and trigger a second wave of infections, it could arrive just in time for the election. But at least one thing is certain: The age group most likely to suffer is also the one most likely to vote.

Read more:

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