For some seniors, virus is shifting their views of Trump

Why We Wrote This

President Trump’s approval rating has fallen among older Americans, many of whom feel especially isolated and at risk. Even a small shift among this bloc of voters could pose a serious threat to the president’s reelection.

Courtesy of the Johnsons
Rody (left) and Tommye Johnson, from Vero Beach, Florida, say they're disappointed with President Donald Trump's handling of COVID-19. They plan to vote for former Vice President Joe Biden in November – the first time either has backed a Democrat.

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As the debate over lifting lockdowns has intensified, President Donald Trump’s eagerness to get the economy moving again seems to have put him at odds with many older voters. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, by a nearly 6-to-1 margin, seniors said the government should prioritize halting the spread of the virus over focusing on the economy. And President Trump’s approval rating among voters over the age of 65 dropped 20 points between March and the end of April.

While many older adults still support the president and tend to be more conservative in their politics than younger ones, the trend represents a clear warning sign for Mr. Trump. In 2016, he carried seniors by 9 points. Yet several recent national surveys have shown former Vice President Joe Biden leading among older voters.

Some seniors say that Mr. Trump – himself a septuagenarian – doesn’t seem to understand how vulnerable and undervalued this crisis has made them feel.  

“The people my age, we have become dispensable,” says Wendy Penk, a lifelong Republican in her 60s from Charlotte, North Carolina, who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 but now plans to vote for Mr. Biden in November.

Tommye and Rody Johnson have been registered Republicans for almost seven decades. So while the couple from Vero Beach, Florida, had some reservations about then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016, they just couldn’t imagine voting for Hillary Clinton.

Now, after nearly four years of President Trump’s tweets, the impeachment scandal, and especially, what they see as his disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, they can’t imagine voting for him again.

They’re not the only ones. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, Mr. Trump’s approval rating among voters over the age of 65 dropped 20 points between March and the end of April, making seniors more critical of the president’s performance than any other age group aside from 18- to 29-year-olds. Much of that decline seems directly related to the virus, which so far has posed a far more serious health threat to older people.  

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

As the debate over lifting lockdowns has intensified, the president’s eagerness to get the economy moving again seems to have put him at odds with many older voters – who, as retirees without children at home, may not be as focused on reopening schools or local businesses. In the same Morning Consult poll, by a nearly 6-to-1 margin, seniors said the government should prioritize halting the spread of the virus over focusing on the economy. Some older adults say that Mr. Trump – himself a septuagenarian, as is presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden – doesn’t seem to understand how vulnerable and undervalued this crisis has made them feel.  

“The people my age, we have become dispensable,” says Wendy Penk, a lifelong Republican in her 60s from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Ms. Penk, like the Johnsons, voted for Mr. Trump last time around, but is now part of a “Republicans for Biden” Facebook group. She worries about her husband’s health, and says Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic cemented her decision to vote a “straight blue” ticket in November. 

“I’ve never seen this level of mishandling my entire life, and I was around during Richard Nixon and Watergate,” says Ms. Penk. “This coronavirus situation has just highlighted how inept [President Trump] is.”

To be sure, many seniors still support the president. Older voters tend to be more conservative in their politics than younger ones, and Republicans have won voters over 65 in the past three presidential elections, even as Democrats have expanded their edge among young voters. In 2016, Mr. Trump carried seniors by 9 points, according to Pew.

Yet several recent national surveys have shown former Vice President Biden leading Mr. Trump among seniors. And while the election is still six months away, the trend represents a clear warning sign for the president. Significantly, many of the most critical battleground states – such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Michigan – also happen to be among the oldest.

Unlike young people, seniors vote consistently. In 2016, more than 70% of older voters participated in the election, compared with 46% of voters under the age of 30. If the president slips even a few percentage points among this bloc of voters, say experts, it would be enough to hand the election to Mr. Biden. 

“Trump can’t win without them,” says Michael Binder, director of the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab. “If he loses a sizable chunk, or even if Biden can get that margin small, Trump is ruined.”

John Raoux/AP
Supporters of President Donald Trump waited in line for a campaign rally June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Florida. Mr. Trump won seniors in Florida by 17 points in 2016, but a recent poll showed him losing them to former Vice President Joe Biden by double digits.

The silent generation

Mr. Trump’s campaign has lately begun making a concerted effort to shore up his support among seniors. Earlier this month, the president proclaimed May 2020 as “Older Americans Month.” The administration announced a new initiative focused on nursing homes, which have struggled with some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks, saying it would send more personal protective equipment to those facilities.

“During this precarious and stressful time, we must remember our treasured older adults and recommit to doing what we can to support and care for them,” Mr. Trump said in his proclamation. “Older Americans know how to overcome. They have done it their whole lives.”

Indeed, voters in their late 70s and 80s are often called the silent generation – a reference to the civic-minded conformity that was forged by the Great Depression and World War II. Yet having lived through numerous presidencies, many older Americans also say they know the difference leadership can make during a crisis.

“This could have been an opportunity to unite the country,” says Mr. Johnson. “We were children in World War II, and if we had that kind of leadership today, this crisis would be a different thing.”

Ken Holmes, a Republican from the ruby-red state of Mississippi, notes that seniors aren’t expecting everything to be easy: “As adults who have been through Vietnam, and as adults with parents who have been through World War II, we know what sacrifice is,” he says. But “we need an adult in the room.”

Mr. Holmes, who works as a receptionist at a local hospital outside Jackson, recently had a friend die from the virus. He says he knows he’s not the only 2016 Trump voter souring on the president. 

The crisis “has just confirmed how incompetent [President Trump] is – and how uncaring he is for others,” says Mr. Holmes. He’s planning to vote for Mr. Biden in November, the first time he’s ever voted for a Democrat, he says.  

The view from The Villages

In 2016, in the all-important state of Florida, Mr. Trump won seniors by 17 points. So it raised some eyebrows when a Quinnipiac poll taken in late April found him 10 points behind Mr. Biden among voters over 65.

Still, in The Villages, the world’s largest 55-plus retirement community, located in Sumter County, Florida, Chris Stanley isn’t sure opinions of Mr. Trump have really shifted all that much.

“The lines are drawn here in The Villages, and they have been drawn since early 2016,” says Ms. Stanley, president of The Villages’ Democratic Club. “If you come as a Trump supporter who is no longer going to support him in November – you’ve just lost your social group.” 

Ms. Stanley does say she sees fewer “Trump 2020” flags flying lately – the only visible form of political support permitted in the community. Similarly, Cathy Hardy, chair of the Sumter County Democratic Party, says that anecdotally, she’s heard a handful of locals say Mr. Trump’s handling of COVID-19 was “the nail in the coffin.” 

“The health concerns people have nationwide are intensified here,” she says.

Last month, Ms. Hardy’s committee ran a virtual fundraiser to raise money for buying stamps, since so much campaign information must now be delivered by mail. Usually in a good month, she says, they will have 15 to 20 first-time donors. But for this event in April, they had 85. 

“It was happening before the coronavirus, but that has only further dwindled down his base,” says Ms. Hardy. “People are not happy with the way he’s been handling it.”

One question is whether the pandemic could have a dampening effect on seniors’ top-notch turnout rates. To avoid facing crowds and long lines on Election Day – and after hearing about the COVID-19 cases that were directly traced to Wisconsin’s in-person primary – many campaign strategists are wondering if some older voters may choose not to vote at all. 

On the other hand, counties like Sumter are seeing more voters signing up to vote by mail. The most vote-by-mail registrations Ms. Hardy’s team had seen in one month before the pandemic was around 330, but they have almost tripled that record in the last five weeks. 

And voters like the Johnsons say Mr. Trump’s lack of leadership during COVID-19 has made them more politically motivated than ever. They say when and if circumstances permit, they’re planning to canvass for Mr. Biden – the first time they’ve done anything besides simply vote for a candidate since Barry Goldwater. 

“There are a few of us out there,” says Ms. Johnson from her condo overlooking palm trees and the Indian River. “Every now and then I hear of more, and it makes me feel better.” 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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