In recent weeks, reporters and political analysts have centered on the challenge that President Trump currently faces with one particular group of voters: seniors. According to the 2016 National Exit Polls, those voters had favored Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 52-45 margin. But now a number of polls (although not every one) show Trump losing this group to Joe Biden, or at least doing worse than in 2016.
The most common explanation is the coronavirus. As one recent New York Times article argued, “The coronavirus crisis and the administration’s halting response to it have cost President Trump support from one of his most crucial constituencies: America’s seniors.” Polls do show seniors increasingly disapprove of Trump’s handling of the virus.
But Trump’s apparent problems with seniors started well before the coronavirus outbreak. Surveys show Biden has been beating Trump among seniors for months. Here’s how we know.
Our research finds that seniors have preferred Biden to Trump for months
This is clear in data from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape project, which has conducted large surveys of more than 6,000 people each week since July 2019. Those surveys have consistently asked whether people would vote for Trump or Biden in a general election matchup. The figure below shows how Biden has polled against Trump among registered voters in four different age groups:
Since July, the margin between Trump and Biden has clearly tightened among voters under 45. This has brought Biden’s lead among both groups in line with Clinton’s lead in 2016. Biden’s current lead among 18- to 29-year-olds is 19 points, according to the trendline in the graph that averages the weekly polls. Clinton’s lead was 18 points according to the 2016 exit polls. Biden’s seven-point lead among 30- to 44-year-olds matches Clinton’s eight-point lead.
But among voters over 45, including seniors, very little has changed since July. Biden’s lead among 45- to 64-year-olds was 10 points in July and is eight points now — substantially better than Clinton’s nine-point deficit.
Biden’s lead among seniors has also been a fairly consistent four to eight points over the past 10 months. It may have increased a few points in the most recent weeks, but this only brought it back to where it was in July.
Biden’s lead among seniors isn’t an “anybody but Trump” phenomenon. Nationscape has also consistently asked about a matchup between Bernie Sanders and Trump. Compared to Biden, Sanders has performed about six to eight points worse among seniors when matched against Trump. He does better than Biden only among the younger voters who have typically supported the Vermont senator more.
Of course, those who are seniors today include some who were not in 2016. Is this why Biden is doing better? No. Among those who were at least 65 years old in 2016 (that is, those 69 or older today), Biden is leading by eight points.
In short, Trump’s struggles among seniors — and Biden’s appeal — appear to predate the coronavirus outbreak by a long time.
Why have seniors supported Biden over Trump?
What could be going on here? The fact that Biden himself is a senior doesn’t seem to explain anything. After all, so are Trump and Sanders.
Another potential explanation is gender: Perhaps Biden appeals to seniors more than Clinton did because of sexist attitudes. Nationscape asks several questions that gauge respondents’ views about gender, including attitudes on sexual harassment, comfort with having a female boss, perceptions of the ability of men and women to think logically, and whether increased opportunities for women have improved society.
But while seniors are more likely than younger Americans to express negative gender attitudes, Biden does better than Clinton among seniors regardless of their gender attitudes.
A third explanation is Biden is perceived to be less liberal than Clinton, which would help him particularly among seniors, who are more likely to identify as conservative than liberal. There is some evidence for this.
In a May 2016 YouGov poll, 68 percent of seniors said Clinton was liberal or very liberal, 27 percent said she was moderate, eight percent said she was conservative or very conservative, and seven percent did not know.
In the most recent Nationscape poll, 56 percent of seniors said Biden was liberal or very liberal, 22 percent said he was moderate, eight percent said he was conservative, and 14 percent did not know. So it is possible Biden benefits from perceived as less liberal. Biden is winning seniors except those who think he is “very liberal.” But we cannot determine whether perceptions of ideology are actually causing seniors to support him.
Whatever the reason, if this continues, it could affect the election’s outcome
Regardless of the reason, the unusual feature of the 2020 campaign thus far is that the age curve that has characterized voting in the past few presidential elections is flattening. Although the last three elections have featured notable divides between different age groups, the unusually high support for Biden among those over 45 has substantially reduced those differences.
It is possible this could change as the campaign goes on. Perhaps some older voters will gravitate toward Trump once they have been hearing Trump’s attacks on Biden for months.
But if Trump’s disadvantage among older continues, it will be a serious obstacle to his reelection bid.
Robert Griffin is a political scientist and research director of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group.