By Robert Griffin / Special to The Washington Post
One of the most remarkable characteristics of the 2020 presidential race has been its consistency. For several months, despite the tumult in the news, former Vice President Joe Biden has led President Trump in national polls by at least 5 points, according to polling aggregators.
One of the main reasons for this lead has been Biden’s surprising advantage among older Americans. According to the 2016 national exit polls, voters 65 and older — who have gone for Republican presidential candidates since 2004 — favored Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 52 percent to 45 percent margin. By contrast, a bevy of polls indicate that Biden has either narrowed that margin or may actually be winning a majority of seniors. For example, a mid-September NPR-PBS-Marist poll found Biden leading Trump 52 percent to 46 percent among registered seniors and 51 percent to 47 percent among seniors likely to vote (although neither result was statistically significant).
Many observers have leaped to what seems like an intuitive conclusion: It’s all about the pandemic. “There’s no question that [Trump’s] epic mishandling of the coronavirus has cost him with seniors, who face an elevated risk of dying from Covid-19,” Michelle Cottle wrote in the New York Times last month.
New York magazine’s Eric Levitz, too, recently suggested that elderly voters have surely noticed that Trump dismisses deaths of older people when he describes the effects of Covid-19. (“It affects elderly people,” Trump noted at a rally in Dayton, Ohio, and said young people had little to worry about. “Elderly people with heart problems and other problems.”)
“Maybe older Trump-to-Biden supporters are looking for a president who will tell them that their lives have no value and that the Dow’s performance must take precedence over protecting nonentities like themselves from a fatal disease,” Levitz wrote. “But it seems like a risky bet.”
Biden’s advantage among seniors, however, predates the pandemic by many months. While Trump’s management of the crisis may have cost him some support, it’s not sufficient to explain the ground he has lost since 2016 among seniors. Data from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape project, a weekly online survey that I help to manage, shows that Biden has led Trump among registered seniors since last summer: Long before the words “novel coronavirus” entered the public consciousness, Biden had a lead of about 5 points within this cohort. On this score, the conventional wisdom appears to be wrong.
To be fair to those promoting the Covid-19 narrative, that pre-pandemic 5-point lead is smaller than the lead Biden holds in Nationscape data today. At present, he leads among seniors by about 9 points. (That’s higher, incidentally, than Democrats’ lead among older voters generally: Nationally, Democrats running for the House currently lead by 4 points among registered seniors, up from a two-point lead in late February.)
It’s certainly plausible that Trump’s handling of Covid-19 has widened Biden’s advantage, although so much else has happened over this period — including an economic recession caused by the lockdowns and one of the broadest protest movements in American history — that isolating causal effects is difficult.
But what explains the trend that predates Covid-19, which differs from patterns in recent presidential elections? Is it possible that seniors are simply anti-Trump; and ready for a change, whomever the opposing candidate might be? That doesn’t appear to be the case. Within Nationscape, we also consistently ask respondents how they would vote in a hypothetical race in which Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the runner-up in the primaries, was the Democratic nominee. In contrast with Biden’s 9-point lead with seniors, Sanders is essentially tied with Trump.
And while older voters may like seeing one of their own run, this hardly sets Biden — at 77, the oldest major-party nominee in history — apart, given that Sanders and Trump are also in their 70s. The answer to the puzzle might well be Biden’s perceived moderation. Polling suggests that Biden is generally seen as more moderate, relative to Trump, than Clinton was in 2016.
In a May 2016 Economist-YouGov poll, Trump was about twice as likely as Clinton to be perceived as moderate by senior voters (38 percent vs. 19 percent). By contrast, recent Economist-YouGov polling shows that about a quarter of seniors think Biden is moderate, compared with just 13 percent of seniors who say the same about Trump. Biden’s moderation caused consternation on the political left during the primaries, but older voters seem to like it.
Whatever the reason for Biden’s relative strength among seniors, three things are clear as we near the campaign’s final month: It’s real, it has endured for more than a year, and it could tilt the balance in a few swing states. If a blue wave does crash this year, it may have a significant tinge of gray in it.
Robert Griffin is a political scientist and research director of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group.