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Politics

Trump’s big problem: Seniors

Essential Politics
(Los Angeles Times)

Six months before the November election, President Trump has fallen behind among a group central to his victory in 2016 — voters 65 and older.

Trump’s significant deficit among seniors shows up in poll after poll, nationwide and in key states, including surveys done by nonpartisan groups and by pollsters in both parties.

The problem predates the intense public focus on the coronavirus, but Trump’s erratic response to the crisis has probably worsened it, strategists in both parties say.

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Trump’s deficit with seniors forms a key reason that former Vice President Joe Biden leads in polls of the presidential race, both nationally and in battleground states. For now, Biden’s advantage among voters in his and Trump’s age bracket more than makes up for the tepid support he gets from potential voters younger than 30.

Before taking a closer look, let’s set out one important caveat: Polls are snapshots of the moment, not predictions, as Doug Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University poll, notes.

“While it may be true that Biden is holding an advantage among 65+ voters now,” he wrote, “it may not be true come Election Day.”

Sensing a leadership deficit

In his 2016 victory, Trump won voters 65 and older nationwide by nine percentage points, 53% to 44%, according to the Pew Research Institute’s detailed, post-election study of voters, which provides the most reliable demographic data.

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Today, that’s reversed. Instead of a nine-point lead among seniors, Trump now has a similar deficit in many polls.

That’s critical because seniors made up slightly more than a quarter of the electorate nationwide in 2016, Pew found. Their support was key to Trump’s victory in each of the major battleground states.

The blue-collar white voters who make up the bulk of Trump’s support are primarily an older group — younger whites are far more likely to have gone to college and less likely to support the president.

One striking example of the deficit Trump faces came this week from Florida — a state that is a must-win for the president. In 2016, the exit poll in that state showed Trump winning voters 65 and older by 17 points, providing a central part of his victory.

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This week, Quinnipiac’s poll of Florida voters showed Trump trailing Biden among voters 65 and older by 10 points. If that held up until election day, it would be “devastating” for Trump in that state, said Schwartz.

“I have a hard time seeing how he would win Florida” while losing seniors like that, Schwartz said. His poll showed Trump currently slightly behind Biden in the state, 46%-42%.

Odds are that Biden won’t win Florida’s seniors by as large a margin as current polls show. Races tend to tighten as election day nears because a substantial number of voters usually move back to their accustomed corners.

But Biden may have a cushion to work with: The same polls that show him winning among voters 65 and older also show a fair amount of apathy among Americans younger than 30.

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That Biden weakness among young voters is in some ways a mirror image of Trump’s deficit among seniors. But Biden’s problem may be easier to deal with.

In part, Biden’s problem with younger voters is a hangover from the primary campaign, in which younger Democrats heavily backed Sen. Bernie Sanders. Over time, those sorts of intra-party disputes tend to fade.

More importantly, in dealing with young people, Biden is pushing on an open door: The audience has already largely decided against Trump, and the task for Democrats is to convince them to vote.

As the annual Youth Poll conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics showed this week, by roughly 2 to 1, Americans ages 18 to 29 say Trump’s presidency has made their lives worse.

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In dealing with seniors, by contrast, Trump faces the harder task of both persuading them and motivating them.

The size of the hole Trump has to dig out of could be seen in a series of polls that gave his campaign troubling news this week. Among others, Fox News showed Trump trailing Pennsylvania by 50%-42%, Michigan 49%-41% and Florida 46%-43%. The Ipsos polling organization, which does surveys for Reuters news agency and other clients, showed Trump trailing in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University poll, said one possible explanation “is that a sizable chunk of these senior voters, who have seen a lot more politics over the years and can compare to prior administrations, feel there has been a lot more chaos in D.C. than they bargained for when they backed Trump in 2016, and they just want some normalcy in the White House.”

That’s a view widely shared by other pollsters and political strategists.

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A key part of the problem for Trump appears to be older women, said Linda DiVall, a veteran Republican consultant, who believes Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis has worsened his problem with those voters.

“They know how this country responded” to crises earlier in their lives and “the leadership that was provided” by previous presidents. “They expect to see the same thing happen today. They find that missing at the federal level,” she said.

Trump’s insistence on holding forth in his lengthy, daily televised briefings has been “disastrous,” DiVall said. And his repeated advocacy of a rapid easing of social-distancing restrictions may be particularly unsettling for a group that “knows they’re most at risk.”

While six months is more than enough time to turn around public opinion, Trump “has got to show steady leadership” and do so soon, she said.

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“With these senior women, the longer they go … the more alarming it may be.”

There’s no big secret about how Trump’s campaign hopes to make up that deficit; they’ve clearly signaled their plan to relentlessly attack Biden’s record and character, in hopes of making the election a referendum on him.

That’s pretty much what worked for Trump against Hillary Clinton in 2016, but is a harder task for a sitting president to pull off, said Mark Mellman, a longtime Democratic pollster and strategist. Reelection campaigns are almost always referendums on the incumbent, Mellman noted, and currently Trump is losing that contest, especially among seniors.

Older voters have an image in their minds of what it looks like for a president to respond to a crisis, Mellman said. To many of them, “Trump’s demeanor, his manner seems inappropriate to a president.”

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That might not have mattered as much in good times, but “when people are fearful, they move to stability,” he said. “Trump represents chaos.”

Biden’s Latino problem

While Trump has a problem with seniors, Biden has a problem with Latinos, as Janet Hook writes. Latino voters tend to be young, many supported Sanders, and many are also blue-collar workers who tune into political debate late in the season.

Right now, as Hook reported, they’re not hearing much from Biden — part of a broader problem he’s having getting attention in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

Another half a trillion dollars

The House on Thursday gave final approval to the latest measure to bolster the economy from the damage caused by the coronavirus crisis, approving nearly half a trillion dollars in additional spending. As Sarah Wire and Jennifer Haberkorn reported, the bill includes expanded small-business loan funding, plus $75 billion in money for hospitals and $25 billion to pay for contact tracing and testing.

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All told, Congress has approved about $2.5 trillion in new spending so far, and members on both sides expect additional legislation in May, although the two sides are far apart on what to include.

Along the way this week, Democrats scrapped a plan to approve a historic rule change to allow remote voting in the House. After objections from Republicans, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said she would set up a bipartisan panel to examine how the House can work without summoning members back to Washington during the pandemic, Haberkorn reported.

Amid the controversy over how quickly to reopen the economy, Don Lee examined the debate over what’s more costly in both lives and dollars — opening quickly or staying shut longer?

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Using the coronavirus crisis for cover

Trump turned to a campaign staple this week — issuing an order restricting immigration that he said was necessitated by the economic crisis. As Molly O’Toole and Noah Bierman wrote, the immigration order has more to do with politics than economics.

It came after a couple of days of widespread confusion as Trump announced one policy by tweet, then announced a somewhat different one at the White House podium, only to release an order that didn’t do what he said he was going to do.

On immigration and other issues, Trump is using the coronavirus crisis to push other policies that administration officials have sought, Bierman and Chris Megerian wrote. The immigration order adopts part of the wish list of White House aide Stephen Miller. Other moves promote deregulatory efforts sought by administration officials.

At the same time, the administration has been retaliating against dissent. David Cloud and Melissa Healy reported that a government scientist felt pressured to approve a $21 million contract for a Florida lab to do research on an anti-malaria drug Trump had touted. The scientist was later pushed out of his senior position.

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Continued problems with supplies

The U.S. lags behind in a global race for coronavirus supplies from China, Noam Levey and Lee reported.

China is the world’s biggest maker of surgical masks and other protective equipment. Other countries have done better in securing supplies. In part, that’s because the U.S. was slower to get into the game, business leaders in both countries said. In part the problem has also been a confused, decentralized effort.

Flareups in the Middle East

Are Trump and Iran moving toward confrontation again? Tracy Wilkinson looked at the latest maneuvering, which has once again increased tensions after a period of relative calm.

A win for environmental groups

The Supreme Court ruled in a major case involving water pollution this week, and the 6-3 decision that beaches can be protected from sewage that flows underground provided a victory for environmental groups, David Savage reported.

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The Trump administration had sided with the government of Maui County in Hawaii in pushing for a narrow reading of the Clean Water Act that would have prevented environmentalists from going to court to force local governments and businesses to clean up pollution of groundwater.

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