The Trump era has seen seismic shifts away from the Republican Party among key voting blocs, like the oft-heralded suburban women, as well as made difficulties predating Trump that the GOP faced with other groups, such as millennials and young voters, even worse.
But little noticed amid the midterm bloodshed was the behavior of one of the party's most important voting blocs — senior citizens — that should worry each and every Republican in Washington and beyond.
People 65 and older have long been solidly Republican, serving as reliable voters who can be counted on to not only turn out more than other blocs, but also do so with less effort on the part of campaigns. Their support was evident in both the 2010 and the 2014 midterm elections, when the GOP won these voters by 21 and 16 points respectively. So, too, was it visible in the last two presidential elections, as senior voters backed Mitt Romney by 12 and Donald Trump by eight points.
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However, 2018 witnessed a startling shift toward Democrats; the GOP managed to win voters 65 and older by just two points.
There are signs that this is not a fluke, and that the Trump era has caused senior citizens to abandon the GOP in numbers big enough that could produce huge electoral consequences for both congressional Republicans and Trump alike. In April, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 53 percent of senior citizens would “definitely not vote for” Trump in 2020. (This disquieting result was obscured in the national discussion by the fact that 62 percent of women overall and 57 percent of white women with a college degree stated that they definitely would not vote for Trump — the aforementioned shift among suburban women.)
And it is not just the one poll that indicates seniors are unhappy with Trump and the Republican Party. A May Monmouth University poll revealed that 58 percent of Americans 65 and older believe that the United States is headed in the wrong direction. And, earlier this month, a Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 60 percent of seniors say the country is headed on the wrong track and 54 percent disapprove of Trump.
When you drill down to the state level, the national trend continues. According to a May 2019 Quinnipiac poll of Pennsylvania voters, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden not only leads Trump statewide by 11 points, but he also beats the incumbent president 58-38 among Pennsylvania voters 65 and older. That is a far cry from how Trump fared with these voters in 2016: He won them by 10 points.
Of course, some Trump defenders will follow the president’s lead and resort to the familiar refrain that the polls are rigged, fake news or some other such dissociation from reality. But the Trump campaign itself has already begun a major Facebook ad campaign targeting senior citizens. Does such a move sound like a campaign that is comfortable that it can hold its 2016 voters and is looking to expand its base? Of course not. It is arguably a sign that the Trump re-election effort is trying to stop an exodus of existing supporters.
It is important to remember that this migration of senior voters away from the GOP and Trump is happening despite the arguably strong economy. Polls have repeatedly shown that voters of all stripes acknowledge that the economy is in fantastic shape, but the majority say they are not personally feeling its benefit. In a new Economist/YouGov poll, just 25 percent of seniors and 25 percent of Americans overall say that they are better off financially than they were a year ago.
And in a new Quinnipiac poll, 77 percent of Americans 65 and older say their economic situation is good or excellent — but Biden still beats Trump among them 56-39 and the president registers a 54 percent disapproval rating. These are roughly the same numbers and sentiments found prior to the 2018 midterm elections.
Americans, including our seniors, view the great economy like it were a great party they’re hearing about, but were somehow not invited to attend.
The Trump campaign and its allies will argue that the president will win the 65 and older voting bloc in 2020 and, in all likelihood, they are correct. However, the question is not whether they will win it but by what margin Trump will win it, because the smaller the margin, the bigger the problem for the president in swing states.
And for a president who essentially won in 2016 by just 77,744 votes — Trump’s margin of victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin combined — the combination of winning voters 65 and older by a smaller margin, losing suburban women, making no inroads among millennials and, potentially, a Democratic nominee who could capitalize on the energy that his party saw in 2018 could spell electoral calamity for Trump in 2020.