vision 2020

Old Folks Like Biden, and That Could Really Matter in November

Uncle Joe and his peers. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There is an understandable tendency right now to throw all the evidence of what might happen in the November election right out the window, given all we don’t know about the duration and intensity of the coronavirus pandemic, not to mention its impact on voting. And it’s undoubtedly true that how Donald Trump is perceived as handling the situation is a variable that could tilt the outcome far in one direction or the other.

On the other hand, perceptions of Trump, even in this incredibly unexpected environment, seem to be relatively inelastic. His job-approval ratings, which benefited from a small “rallying effect” early in the pandemic, are settling back down into their accustomed narrow range. So while recognizing weird things could still happen, it’s not a bad idea to keep an eye on general-election polling. And one thing that stands out when you look at head-to-head matchups between Trump and Joe Biden is that the older of these septuagenarians has a pretty steady lead among seniors, the most pro-Republican of age demographics in recent presidential contests, and also the group most likely to turn out.

Biden’s strong support among seniors is pretty consistent in recent surveys. He led Trump among over-65 voters by 15 points (57-42) in the most recent ABC–Washington Post national poll, in which Biden’s overall lead was just two points (49-47). Old folks preferred him 55-42 in an early April CNN poll (he led overall 53-42) and by 54-41 in an early April Quinnipiac survey (his overall lead was 49-41). The one notable outlier is an Ann Selzer poll for Grinnell College in late March that shows Trump leading Biden among over-65 likely voters 49-46 (he leads overall 47-43). But even that performance by Biden is impressive in recent historical terms: Democrats haven’t carried the senior vote in a presidential election (according to exit polls) since 1996. Bush won this group by 52-46 in 2000 and by 52-47 in 2004; McCain won seniors 53-45 in 2008; Romney won them 56-44 in 2012; and Trump won them 52-45 in 2016.

Biden is not doing as well as past recent Democratic presidential candidates among middle-age folks. But he’s certainly broken the pattern of Democrats having an inverse relationship with the age of voters, as Bill Scher recently noted:

Biden appears to be changing the demographic fault lines of presidential politics. Instead of a generational war between young and old over the cultural direction of the country, Biden’s Warren Harding–esque call for a return to normalcy is attracting new support for Democrats from the oldest voters, while holding on to support from a younger generation long scarred by war and financial instability.

Even Nate Cohn, the New York Times pollster and analyst who perpetually warns Trump is a better bet for reelection than most mainstream-media observers think, wonders about Biden’s surprising strength among seniors, reflected in a polling lead over Trump in two states the incumbent carried in 2016:

One reason for Mr. Biden’s strength in Arizona and Florida might be older voters, who represent an above-average share of white voters in the two states. On average, Mr. Biden leads among voters over age 65 by a margin of 53 percent to 44 percent nationwide, including a lead in every live-interview national poll reporting a result for the group. It is a substantial improvement over Mrs. Clinton’s six-point deficit among the group in pre-election polls in 2016.

Mr. Biden’s early strength among older voters is not easy to explain. It cannot be fully accounted for by the changing composition of each age group, although the ascent of the baby boomers into the oldest age cohort may be part of the reason, along with the gradual departure of the more conservative Silent Generation from the electorate altogether. 

Now, since a vote’s a vote, does it really matter if Biden wins seniors if, say, he loses middle-aged voters or non-college-educated white voters by an offsetting degree, or (as Cohn suggests) Trump does better among nonwhite voters than he did four years ago? Perhaps, since a Biden win in Arizona, Florida, and Pennsylvania (another state with a relatively old electorate) would make all the obsessions over Wisconsin and Michigan irrelevant. But more fundamentally, renewed Democratic strength among seniors might produce a boost in actual votes, since seniors are the demographic group most likely to vote, in election after election.

All other things being equal, that means the late-cycle boost Republicans tend to get in polls when likelihood to vote is measured may not be as robust as usual, or may not even exist. But turnout, of course, is now being overshadowed by coronavirus concerns and the wildly varying rules states have for allowing fearful voters to cast ballots by mail. If the pandemic is still underway when general-election voting begins, you’d have to figure the most vulnerable population, seniors (and perhaps seniors of color, a group especially crucial to Biden), might be less likely to vote than would otherwise be the case in places that make voting by mail difficult.

But the GOP’s great enemy of voting by mail, the president of the United States, has identified seniors as one of the few categories of voters he considers eligible for this alleged privilege:

Seven red states that generally restrict voting by mail by requiring an excuse — Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas — have exemptions from excuse requirements for seniors. If Biden actually has an enduring advantage over Trump among old folks, such pro-senior voting rules might cut in a very different direction than one might have previously assumed. An alliance of the youngest and oldest voters lifting Uncle Joe to the presidency would be an appropriate response to a pandemic that threatens the lives of the latter group and the aspirations of the former.

Old Folks Like Biden. That Could Really Matter in November.