If one thing about elections has been made perfectly clear over the past four years, it is everything pundits thought they knew has either been proven wrong or should be thoroughly questioned. As November 3 approaches, an old assumption which must be re-examined is “older voters will decide the election.”
Surveys and statistics have shown older voters turn out in higher numbers than younger voters. The Pew Research Center surveys after the 2016 Presidential election showed these older voters favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, enabling Trump to overcome his large disadvantage against Clinton among younger voters.
At first glance, this divergence among age groups should improve Trump’s chances in 2020. The United States has grown older during the past four years – the median age of the U.S. population was 37.9 in 2016 and grew to 38.4 in 2019.
But recent polling doesn’t reflect a Trump advantage this time. An AARP survey of 50+ voters in eleven swing states showed older voters as split as the rest of the population. What’s going on?
In the past, the concerns of voters about many issues changed as they grew older, which impacted their decision in the voting booth. As the ideological divide in U.S. politics has grown over the past four years, however, the importance of issues driving the decisions of voters has faded.
The reality of the 2020 presidential election is it will overwhelmingly be a referendum on Donald Trump instead of an election based on issues. And the only thing that has changed about voters’ opinions of Trump since 2016 is people are four years older.
You may feel the last statement is flippant but think about opinion polls measuring Trump’s favorability. Those numbers have been remarkably consistent since January 2017. His approval hovers between 40-45 percent, his disapproval between 47-52 percent. He has his base of supporters, but it’s not easy to find someone who voted for Clinton in 2016 but plans to vote for Trump this year.
Mortality also plays a role. The vast majority of deaths in the American population in the past four years have been among people aged 60 and older. It stands to reason these deaths were evenly distributed across the political spectrum, meaning more 2016 Trump supporters have died than Trump opponents. The question then becomes who replaces the voters who have died?
Polling indicates younger people oppose Trump by significant margins, so it would be a losing proposition for the Trump campaign to count on those who have turned 18 since 2016 as substitutes for their supporters who are no longer with us. Instead, Trump must look toward other groups.
In the past, the changing attitudes of voters as they aged seemed to favor more conservative politicians who stressed financial stability.
But by making the election about ideology and personality, the Trump forces have forfeited their ability to sway voters based on altered personal circumstances. Those who have entered the “older voter” demographic since 2016 are bringing their opinion of Donald Trump with them and aren’t likely to change their mind because of their age.
Beyond extraordinary measures to disrupt the election or question the results (factors which, unfortunately, must be mentioned), Trump’s hopes for victory rests on the two true keys to the election – low turnout among the newly-enfranchised and Trump opponents, or finding voters who did not vote in 2016 but will vote for him in 2020.
The former can certainly happen. COVID-19 lurks over this election, and individuals may deem it to be too risky to their health to turn out to the polls. Trump’s efforts to de-legitimize mail-in balloting may cause some to forego that option.
But the Trump campaign is also searching for those who may have been eligible to vote in 2016 but did not. Individuals are more likely to vote as they get older.
First-time voters can be driven to cast ballots by factors that impact them personally. The Trump campaign appears to have decided fear is their best hope for getting these individuals to the polls – fear of crime, fear of having guns taken away, or fear of government interference in their lives. The campaign commercials targeting this group have already been ugly – and they’re likely to get worse.
Older voters will be the largest component of the 2020 electorate by age, but they are as divided as the rest the country on the issue of Donald Trump. So be skeptical when you hear pundits try to lump the 50+ population together as a single voting bloc-Trump’s personality cult has ensured in 2020 no such homogenous group exists.
Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Follow him on Twitter @RELandis.