This year’s presidential election may see a new pattern that may prove disastrous for the GOP. Former vice president Joe Biden appears on track to win an impressive share of the oldest voters, without losing support among the young.
The relationship between age and political party preference is not linear, but for many election cycles older voters have been, on average, more Republican than younger voters. According to exit polls, in 2016 voters age 65 and older gave Donald Trump 52 percent of their votes. In 2012, Mitt Romney won 56 percent of this cohort.
The correlation between age and vote choice gives the Democrats a compelling narrative. They are the party of the young and diverse, the party of the future; the Republicans, in contrast, are the party of the old and white, the party of nostalgia, or worse. Republicans, for their part, have often been saved in close elections by the high turnout rates of retirees.
Polling demonstrates Biden’s potential strength among American senior citizens. A CNN poll showed Biden with a 21-point advantage over Trump among the oldest respondents. Recent polling further showed that only 42 percent of older voters approved of the President’s performance, which was lower than his overall approval rating of 46 percent. The Biden campaign’s aggressive outreach to older Americans further suggests they believe they can make impressive gains among these voters. On October 13, Biden campaigned at a senior center in Pembroke Pines, Florida. Biden’s advertising campaign also heavily targets older voters.
There are multiple reasons Biden may be on track to perform exceptionally well among a group that has long favored Republicans. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven especially deadly among older people. Whether President Trump deserves blame for the pandemic is beside the point. He is the incumbent, and the death toll and economic contraction can only harm his electoral prospects. His seeming nonchalance about the virus also lends credibility to Biden’s claim that the current administration views senior citizens as ‘expendable’.
Polls also show support for the Black Lives Matter movement has steadily declined since the summer, and that support is lowest among American seniors. After a summer of protests and riots, you might assume President Trump’s call for ‘law and order’ would resonate with older voters. This would be more plausible, however, if Donald Trump was not the incumbent.
Voters may be convinced that the far left is the cause of today’s urban unrest. It may be harder to persuade them, at this point, that reelecting President Trump is the solution. The fact that Biden has explicitly rejected the protesters’ more radical anti-police rhetoric and demands further undercuts the Republican message.
Joe Biden’s persona and record similarly hinder Republican efforts to paint their opponent as a dangerous radical. No one is afraid of Joe Biden. The 77-year-old candidate, whose most memorable campaign slogan to date is ‘no malarkey’, is hardly the face of antifa radicalism. In a year when so many older Americans desperately want a return to normalcy, a moderate, cornball anachronism like Joe Biden will likely be a very attractive candidate.
Republicans have occasionally emphasized Biden’s extraordinary age, arguing that he will lack the physical stamina and mental sharpness the job of president requires. Such an argument falls flat, given that their own candidate is 74 years old, and not the picture of health. It is an open question as to which candidate is most likely to survive until 2024. Attacking Biden for his age also risks further alienating older voters.
Joe Biden is not an inspiring candidate. In a more conventional election year, a Democrat with such a milquetoast message and centrist style might lose significant support from voters on the far left — a relatively small portion of the electorate, but potentially important in tight races. This year, however, the left has promoted the storyline that Donald Trump is a literal fascist. The far left will unquestionably turn out to vote against Donald Trump, if not necessarily for Joe Biden.
Despite his advantages, there are reasons to doubt a massive gray wave will deliver Biden a landslide victory. Scholars of American political behavior have consistently demonstrated the extraordinary power of party identity. Once people settle on a political party, most of them tend to stick with it, regardless of the candidate or national circumstances. The entrenchment of party identities only grows stronger with age. A massive Biden victory among senior citizens will only be possible if he wins the votes of a significant percentage of older, long-time Republicans, which may be unlikely.
Most polls suggest that Biden is on his way to a comfortable victory, and an unusually strong showing among American seniors may make the difference. If the president’s support among seniors does not turn around, his already narrow path to victory may disappear entirely. Nevertheless, in a period of long-term partisan polarization, it is always safest to bet against massive partisan swings within any demographic group.
George Hawley is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alabama.