clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Trump still has a lead among older voters — but Biden is hoping to cut into it

Coronavirus has older adults concerned, but many are still supporting Trump.

Trump, in a navy suit and solid blue tie, looks at the camera with a serious expression on his face, seated at a table.
President Donald Trump in the White House Cabinet Room on May 9.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

President Donald Trump needs older voters to win reelection in November. Some of his senior aides, however, are now reportedly worried about losing them — in part because of how the president has handled the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the New York Times’s Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman, aides like Kellyanne Conway have told the president his internal polling shows him losing the support of Americans 65 and older, whom he won by a 7 percentage-point margin in the 2016 election, at alarming rates. And that a recent poll conducted on behalf of his reelection campaign showed him losing that demographic to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by at least 10 percentage points.

While Trump’s coronavirus response does seem to have some older adults worried, publicly available national polls haven’t registered a significant decline in older Americans’ support for the president. There seems to be a shift in key swing states, but in national polls, Trump is still leading Biden among that demographic.

The president and his team’s response to this internal polling is telling. It reportedly factored into the decision to suspend Trump’s daily coronavirus press conferences, with aides concerned that Trump’s statements on matters such as injecting bleach to cure Covid-19 and his tendency to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic were causing older backers to question their support of him.

Trump has also done things like proclaiming May “Older Americans Month,” with more pomp than it has sometimes been marked, and has begun to speak directly to older adults about the risks Covid-19 poses to them. He held a press conference on Monday, but seemed to have trouble staying on the messaging about US testing.

It is true older adults are disproportionately at risk for coronavirus complications — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that nearly 80 percent of all confirmed US Covid-19 deaths have been among those above 65, for example — making a renewed focus on them laudable.

But it is not clear that this focus would help the president much politically, as publicly available polls do not overwhelmingly show that they are defecting from him.

National polling suggests Trump is doing okay with seniors — other demographics, not so much

Recent polling shows Biden with a strong national advantage over Trump. The Democrat’s RealClearPolitics polling average puts him 4.4 percentage points ahead of the president. No major poll taken in the past month has shown Trump ahead — the president’s best results have been ties.

Looking only at age, much of what is driving Biden’s advantage appears to be support among Generation Z and millennial voters; for instance, a Monmouth University poll of 739 registered voters taken April 30 to May 4 found 56 percent of voters ages 18 to 34 backed Biden, while only 29 percent supported Trump, a gap made no less stark by the poll’s 3.6 percentage point (plus or minus) margin of error.

But the poll found that Trump did slightly better with older voters (Monmouth groups those 55 and above into this category), with 50 percent support to Biden’s 45 percent.

That lead is within the margin of error, but it does represent an improved result compared to a Monmouth poll taken April 3 to 7, back when Trump was still having daily press conferences and when the US death toll was nearing 15,000. In that poll, Biden was ahead of Trump among voters 55 and older, with 49 percent to Trump’s 46 percent.

These numbers, and similar ones, like those found by a YouGov poll taken May 3 to 5 (which found Trump with a weak lead over Biden among voters 65 and older — 3 percentage points in a poll with a 3.3. percentage-point margin of error) would seem to paint a somewhat brighter picture of Trump’s support among older voters than the internal polling cited by the Times. But both polls show Biden winning the popular vote overall. And the Biden overall lead Monmouth’s pollsters recorded — 9 percentage points — is outside that poll’s margin of error.

Older adults’ approval of Trump’s coronavirus response has been fairly stable

The Times notes polls about Trump’s coronavirus response have his campaign concerned about his older adult support. The president’s net approval of his coronavirus response among those 65 and above has been decreasing, according to a Morning Consult tracking poll.

The Morning Consult polling shows data through April 19, making it difficult to draw conclusions from, given the speed at which the pandemic — and the federal government’s messaging about it — have changed. But data from YouGov polls shows a similar downward trajectory: A poll taken March 29 to 31 found the president’s net coronavirus approval rating among voters 65 and older to be 9 percentage points; a poll taken about one month later, from April 26 to 28, found it to be 6 percentage points among the same demographic; and YouGov’s most recent poll, taken May 3 to 5 found approval among voters 65 and above to be 4 percentage points.

But that trend comes with some important caveats.

Net approval rating is calculated by subtracting the number of those who disapprove from the number of those who approve. And the president’s coronavirus approval ratings — at least in YouGov’s work — haven’t changed very much with time.

In the March 29 to 31 poll, 36 percent of voters over 65 said they “strongly” approved of Trump’s handling of the virus; in the April 26 to 28 poll that number fell to 35 percent; and in the most recent poll, it is back to 36 percent. The number that “somewhat” approves has changed slightly — it was 17 percent in the March and April polls, and was recorded to be 14 percent in the most recent work — but what has really changed is the number of people who disapprove.

In March, 34 percent strongly disapproved, a figure that rose to 41 percent in April, before falling to 36 percent in May. These fluctuations are notable, but didn’t appear to arise due to any significant erosions of support — instead respondents who were ambivalent or told pollsters they “weren’t sure” how they felt appeared to decide they believed Trump was doing a poor job. In May, for instance, the number of respondents above 65 telling pollsters they only somewhat disapproved of Trump’s response increased, up to 10 percent from April’s 5 percent.

It is true these previously undecided voters could represent valuable swing voters, but Trump’s core base of support appears unchanged in this polling — particularly considering the margins of error (3.2, 3.2, and 3.3 percentage points for each month).

One other bright spot for Trump in recent polling is that his coronavirus approval rating among Republicans of all ages remains strong — in YouGov’s May survey, it is at 84 percent.

But Monmouth’s polling does reveal one general area of concern: Voters in swing districts appear to increasingly be favoring Biden; the university’s April 3 to 7 poll found Biden leading among swing voters (those living in counties in which neither Trump nor former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won by a double-digit margin) by 4 percentage points. In their April 30 to May 4 poll, the school’s pollsters found Biden beating Trump among swing voters by 16 percentage points.

All this suggests that the Trump campaign’s internal concern over the president’s standing with older adults may not reflect the whole picture. But overall national polling would seem to indicate Trump does have good reason to be worried about his reelection prospects.