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Covid isn't why Trump is losing seniors' support. But it isn't helping him.

Conventional wisdom suggests Covid turned older voters against Trump. But they started moving away from him in 2018 — and haven't stopped since.
President Trump Signs Executive Order Protecting Medicare
President Donald Trump during an event in The Villages, Fla., in October 2019.Eve Edelheit / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The current thinking is that President Donald Trump and the Republican Party are faring so poorly with America's senior voters because of their response to Covid-19 — in particular, the president's severely inadequate actions and policies, as well as how seniors are among the most vulnerable populations in this pandemic. However, that is a false assumption: The shift by seniors away from Trump and the GOP began — at the very latest — in 2018, long before the pandemic.

Republicans won the senior vote by just 2 points in the 2018 midterm elections, and state and national polling in 2019 showed that the slide was continuing. A May 2019 Quinnipiac University poll in Pennsylvania found Trump losing among voters 65 and older by 20 points. In October 2019, Quinnipiac found Joe Biden leading Trump by 51 percent to 45 percent among seniors nationally. The trend continued into 2020 — and it was punctuated by a Fox News poll from June in which Biden led Trump by 10 points among seniors.

If anything, the administration's coronavirus flailing simply calcified the move away from Trump by seniors; it didn't cause it.

The trend is pretty damning. Voters ages 65 and over have been the bedrock of the Republican Party for years. In the 2010s, the GOP built its House and Senate majorities on seniors' wide preference for Republican candidates. When the GOP took the majority in the House in 2010, it did so by winning the senior vote by 21 points. The 2014 midterms saw it expand its majority in the House and retake the Senate, with seniors favoring GOP candidates by 16 points.

And in 2012 and 2016, voters 65 and over favored Mitt Romney by 12 points and then Donald Trump by 8.

Today, however, Biden has a chance to win seniors both nationally and in key swing states, such as Florida and Pennsylvania — which would almost certainly propel him to the White House.

According to a recent New York Times/Siena College Research Institute poll in Florida and Pennsylvania, Biden leads Trump among likely voters, by 7 and 5 points respectively. Among senior voters, Biden is ahead by 47 percent to 45 percent in Florida and by 53 percent to 42 percent in Pennsylvania. These leads are made all the more remarkable by the fact that in 2016, Trump won Florida seniors by 17 points; if those numbers were to hold, it would be a 19-point shift away from him. Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by just 44,292 votes and the senior vote by 10 points; were the 21-point shift indicated by the poll to hold, it would be enough to eradicate his 2016 margin and put the state's 20 electoral votes into Biden's column.

Other national and state polls show sizable shifts of senior voters away from Trump. An Economist/YouGov poll taken Sept. 27-30 gave Biden a 1-point national lead, and a University of New Hampshire poll from Sept. 30 gave him an 11-point lead among seniors in the state, who broke evenly between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Seniors' trending away from Trump is not just a swing state phenomenon. In South Carolina, a Quinnipiac poll on Sept. 30 found a 15-point swing away from Trump among seniors compared to 2016; the president now leads Biden by just 4 points. Another Quinnipiac poll from Sept. 29 shows Trump with a healthy lead among Georgia seniors, 54 percent to 45 percent, but, as a trend, that is misleading: Trump's margin of victory among seniors in Georgia in 2016 was 36 points.

And while the fact that the trend is long-standing suggests that it's bigger than Covid-19, pollsters have yet to bother teasing out the exact reason for the shift, because it has gone mostly unnoticed.

What polling has revealed is that older Americans have consistently said the United States is headed in the wrong direction — the Sept. 27-30 Economist/YouGov survey found that 62 percent of voters 65 and older say America is on the wrong track — but that alone cannot account for the change in voters' preferences.

Seniors ranked health care as their top issue in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Furthermore, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's Obamacare tracking poll, their approval of the Affordable Care Act was just 32 percent in November 2010. Now its favorability has risen to 53 percent — a 31-point rise over 10 years. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is fighting to eliminate the law without any apparent replacement plan in the offing, and it is appointing Supreme Court justices expected to rule in its favor.

Anecdotally, many seniors seem to have turned away from Trump because of two further reasons. First, institutional memory: Trump — with his norm-busting behavior and all-too-frequent departures from decency — is reported to have triggered their recollection of when a president behaved like a president, and, like other Americans, they miss that time.

The other factor is felt by all Americans: exhaustion. They are tired of Trump and his incessant whining, bellicosity, conspiracy mongering, paranoia and divisive behavior. In February, a Pew Research Center study found that over two-thirds of Americans felt worn out by the news, and Trump has been injecting drama into the center of it for the last five years. Seniors fall well within that two-thirds of Americans. This is likely part of why Trump's labeling Biden as "Sleepy Joe" backfires: Voters realize that some peace and quiet sounds pretty good these days. (It also likely hurts him among seniors who find it ageist.)

It remains to be seen whether Trump and the Republican Party's decline among senior voters is a durable shift in the electorate — but it certainly will make its presence felt this year. And for an incumbent president who won his first term by just 77,744 votes — Trump's margin in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin that secured him the Electoral College — and has not sought to expand his base or win over swing voters, the defection of seniors is one more loss that could have significant electoral consequences.