WASHINGTON — Democrat Joe Biden has extended his advantage in the presidential race in the wake of the first debate and Republican President Donald Trump’s diagnosis and hospital treatment for the coronavirus, fueled by stark shifts among seniors.
National and swing-state polls in the last week show an exodus among voters 65 and older from Trump to Biden, an alarming sign for the president after NBC News exit polls showed he won that crucial Republican-leaning cohort by 8 points in 2016.
A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found Biden leading Trump by 14 points, his largest advantage ever in the survey. Among seniors 65 and older, Biden led by a startling 27 points, marking a 23-point swing in his direction in one month.
The recent drop-offs among seniors represent an open wound for the president’s campaign that could turn fatal to his hopes of re-election. They come as Trump faces growing disapproval for his handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans and is disproportionately deadly to the elderly. His own Covid-19 diagnosis and decisions to host large gatherings with sparse mask-wearing have fueled concerns.
Democrats have sought to connect Trump’s Covid-19 handling to his policy proposals to reduce health care funding under the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid, which funds nursing homes.
“Donald Trump refused to combat the virus that gives them Covid and is working over time to cut away their coverage if they get sick. 'More covid, less coverage' seems like a tough sell to seniors,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic consultant and campaign veteran.
Post-debate surveys show Biden leading outside the margin of error in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the three states that narrowly sealed Trump’s victory in 2016.
A New York Times/Siena poll of Pennsylvania found Biden ahead by 7 points; his lead among seniors was 11 points. A WDIV/Detroit News poll of Michigan found Biden extending his lead to 8.8 points, powered by a nearly 30 point lead among voters over 65 years of age — a 22-point swing since early September.
In a new Siena poll of Arizona, a state that has voted Republican in all but one presidential election since 1952, Biden led Trump by 1 among seniors, and by 8 points overall.
With 28 days to go, Trump has been more competitive in surveys of Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, which are essential to his path to victory. And with the uncertainties surrounding mass vote-by-mail in a pandemic, and legal battles between the two parties over voting laws in numerous states, the 2020 election has been an unusually volatile one.
Asked about Trump's support slipping among seniors, campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said the president has “a record of success,” and added, “Joe Biden is proof that Obamacare was a complete failure.” He criticized the “Medicare for All” plan that the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris, supported as detrimental to seniors. (Harris backpedaled on the plan last year.)
Americans 65 and older are a Republican-friendly bloc and haven’t voted to send a Democratic to the White House since 2000, according to exit polls. The Silent Generation and Baby Boomers tend to turn out at higher rates than younger generations. Trump lacks a viable path to victory without them, particularly with millennials and Gen Z voters solidly in the Democrats’ column.
The senior vote wasn’t the only warning sign for Trump in the NBC poll. Suburban voters favored Biden by 11 points after splitting evenly last month. White voters without a college degree, which voted for Trump by 39 points in 2016, favored the president by just 14 points (a decline of 9 points since last month).
Biden, 77, has courted older voters by presenting himself as a steady and competent leader who would listen to scientists and develop a national plan to combat the coronavirus. He has consistently worn masks and called for mask mandates across the nation, while Trump, 74, has downplayed the severity of the virus and last week mocked Biden for being overly cautious with masks.
Days later, Trump announced he tested positive for the virus, while Biden tested negative. Trump spent the weekend receiving treatment in the hospital. Before returning to the White House on Monday, he posted a tweet declaring: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”
On Tuesday, he again compared Covid-19 to the flu, an analogy that medical experts have repeatedly said is wrong and dangerous. He returned to complaining about press coverage of his presidency, complaining that he doesn't receive enough credit for the economy, and adding: “All they want to discuss is COVID 19.”
Biden on Tuesday kept his focus on the virus, tweeting: “Folks, we can save nearly 100,000 lives by the end of the year if everyone wears a mask in public. Do your part. Protect your neighbors. Wear a mask.”