Joe Biden may be ahead in national and many battleground polls, but Democrats are still fretting about whether key constituencies will turn out in November. In particular, they worry about the level of support from young black and Hispanic voters — for good reason.
Mr. Biden’s margins among these groups, particularly blacks, tend to lag Hillary Clinton’s margins in the 2016 election (though the gap is smaller if you compare Mr. Biden’s margins now to Mrs. Clinton’s at the same point in her 2016 campaign). And young voters were notably unenthusiastic about the former vice president during the primary season.
But the Democrats have a secret weapon in 2020 on the other side of the age spectrum: senior voters. Among this age group — voters 65 and older — polls so far this year reveal a dramatic shift to the Democrats. That could be the most consequential political development of this election.
The bipartisan States of Change project estimates that Mrs. Clinton lost this group by around 15 points. By contrast, the nonpartisan Democracy Fund + U.C.L.A. Nationscape survey, which has collected over 108,000 interviews of registered voters since the beginning of the year, has Mr. Biden leading among seniors by about six points. We are looking at a shift of over 20 points in favor of the Democrats among a group that should be at least a quarter of voters in 2020. That’s huge.
This pro-Democratic shift is very much in evidence in 2020 battleground states. The list includes Florida, where seniors should be an unusually high 30 percent of voters (a 17 point shift); Pennsylvania (24 points); and Michigan (26 points). In short, the age group that was President Trump’s greatest strength in 2016 is turning into a liability. In an election where he will need every vote against a strong Democratic challenge, that could be disastrous — and a harbinger of a new, broader coalition for the Democrats.
Who are these seniors who are turning against Mr. Trump? As you might expect, the racial composition of the 65 and over population is majority white — about four in five. And among white seniors, we see the same shift as among seniors as a whole, over 20 points. The movement of white seniors against the president is clearly driving this trend.
There are a number of possible reasons for this disenchantment. First, while they are a relatively conservative population group, they are not as conservative as their reputation suggests. For example, according to the Nationscape data (over 20,000 interviews with registered white senior voters since the beginning of the year), white seniors support increasing taxes on those earning over $600,000 a year by 44 points. They also support paid family leave by 29 points and a $15-an-hour minimum wage by 21 points. On health care, they support a public option for government health insurance by 34 points.
But that liberalism is tempered by other views. White seniors oppose “Medicare for All” by 28 points. And while these voters oppose separating children from parents to pursue prosecutions against illegal border crossing by 40 points, they also favor moving away from a family-based immigration system to a merit-based one — generally a position favored by conservatives — by 18 points and charging those who cross the border illegally with a federal crime by 17 points.
In addition, three-quarters of white seniors believe that the government should promote traditional family values in society and about two-thirds think the Ten Commandments should be allowed to be displayed at public schools and courthouses. And, by very wide margins, they oppose reparations for slavery and believe that there are only two genders, male and female.
So in short: liberal, but not especially, on some economic issues — and fairly traditional, but not draconian, on social issues. It’s easy to see why many voters who thought that was what they would get from a Trump administration are now disappointed. Combined with an age-related preference for normality and stability, that helps explain their movement away from Mr. Trump. They thought he would bring them closer to the America they wanted, with some of the decency and values of the past. As far as many white seniors are concerned, they didn’t get it.
For them, Mr. Biden seems like a comfortable alternative. He projects moderation and decency, an image burnished by his rejection of proposals regularly debated in the Democratic primary like Medicare for all and decriminalizing the border.
No doubt his appeal has been strengthened by the president’s response to the coronavirus, which has hit this group far worse than it has younger Americans. The president’s performance, and his ostentatious concern with reopening the economy rather than preventing deaths among the most vulnerable, has not gone down well with these voters.
For many, disenchantment actually predates the current crisis. But the pandemic, and Mr. Trump’s handling of it, has reinforced the shift.
Still, senior voters, even the ones who have recently moved to the left, are not securely in the Democratic camp. Policies that are too far to the left on immigration, health care and hot-button social issues could undermine their commitment to Mr. Biden and his party. This may present a particular political challenge after the wave of protests that engulfed the country in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
These voters have a preference for order — in one early June poll, 68 percent of senior voters supported or somewhat supported sending in the military to help the police respond to protests — so if they come to view Democrats as being soft on the violence that broke out in some cities, that could also reduce enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket. Similarly, demands that have emerged from the protests, like reparations or defunding the police, are politically unpopular with many seniors and could also potentially undercut Democratic support among this new constituency.
For now, though, this shift is the most consequential we have seen in this election season. If it remains through November and beyond, it could define a new era in American politics.
Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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