WASHINGTON — Donald Trump owes his presidency in large part to older Americans. But one pandemic and one looming recession later, that gray-haired coalition appears to be showing signs of turning on him.
A handful of recent polls show Trump’s approval slipping with older voters, who initially rallied around him in March when the pandemic first began disrupting daily life. Since then, the president turned daily press briefings on the coronavirus into hours-long affairs that have included him pushing unproven treatments and musing about the medical benefits of injecting cleaning products into the body.
Many older Americans, who are more vulnerable to the virus in the first place and vote at higher levels than the rest of the population, appear to be unimpressed. Trump’s approval among people over 65 dropped 19 points between March and the end of April, according to Morning Consult polling. In another poll this week, from YouGov, his approval among older voters dropped to 46 percent, down five points from the week before.
By contrast, in the 2016 election Trump won 52 percent of voters 65 and older, according to CNN exit polls. Trump’s strength in that age group was with white voters, which he won over Democrat Hillary Clinton 58 percent to 39 percent. Clinton overwhelmingly beat him among Black and Latino voters over 65.
The recent trend among older Americans is part of a larger pattern of discouraging poll numbers lately for Trump, which show him losing to his Democratic rival Joe Biden in key swing states. The barrage of bad news and urging from his aides has Trump trying to show more restraint, shortening his appearances before the press and deferring more to his own medical experts during them.
On Thursday, he made a direct appeal to seniors. At a special White House event, he signed a proclamation declaring May as “Older Americans Month” and highlighted his administration’s efforts to improve conditions at nursing homes, many of which have been ravaged by the virus. “As we tragically have seen, the virus poses the greatest risk to older Americans,” Trump said. "Together as one nation we mourn for every precious life that has been lost.”
But the damage may have been done. Cable news viewers skew older, and have likely observed many of Trump’s missteps by watching his briefings over the past weeks, which most of the cable networks carry live.
“Anybody who has watched these pressers knows that Trump has hurt himself,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
Charlie Black, a longtime Republican consultant, agreed that Trump’s performance has been “very erratic” recently, which explains the polling declines. But he noted approval ratings for the administration’s medical experts and Vice President Mike Pence are higher, suggesting Trump could quickly get back in voters’ good graces.
“If he performs more consistently, in a couple of weeks this will all be gone,” Black predicted.
But Trump has at times been ham-handed in his outreach to the age group that was pivotal in sending him to the White House and has felt the effects of the virus more deeply than others. The federal government’s guidelines recommend that older Americans and those with certain preexisting conditions stay home even after states pass thresholds that allow them to open up more parts of their economies, which means the economic effects of the virus will likely last longer for older people.
“We're taking very special care of our nursing homes and our seniors, other than me,” Trump, who is 73, told reporters last week. “Nobody wants to take care of me. But other than me, we're taking care of our seniors.”
At times, some high-profile Republicans have suggested that older people should sacrifice for the greater economic good. The lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, said on Fox News last month that he and other older people would be willing to “take a chance on your survival” in exchange for keeping the economy strong. In April, Patrick doubled down, saying there are "more important things than living.”
Trump hasn’t gone as far, but he has downplayed the virus’s danger by repeatedly comparing it to the seasonal flu and stressing that an economic recession could be worse than deaths from the virus.
“Trump’s message has been that it’s more important for people to get to the hair salon than it is to protect grandma and grandpa from getting sick,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “So it’s not a surprise that grandma and grandpa aren’t into that idea.”
The Trump campaign said the president is committed to caring for older Americans. “President Trump and his administration remain focused on protecting our most vulnerable citizens, including our nation’s senior citizens,” said Trump campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso, touting Trump’s record on Social Security and Medicare.
In 2016, Trump built on Republicans’ existing strength with seniors by showing none of the cost-cutting zeal of some of his predecessors, promising on the campaign trail to never cut Social Security or Medicare. While Trump lost to Clinton among voters under 50, he made up ground with his backing from older voters.
“They’re not just the base, they are his support, period,” said Sabato.
But Biden, the 77-year-old presumptive Democratic nominee, who has lagged with young voters, has shown strength among older voters in polls of some swing states, and his campaign sees a potential opening there. An April Quinnipiac poll of Florida showed Biden leading Trump by 10 points among voters over 65 — a group Trump carried by nearly 20 points there against Clinton in 2016, according to exit polls. Polls from Fox News also showed Biden with an advantage among older voters in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
“The reason Biden won on Super Tuesday in states he never set foot in to campaign was older voters have a baked-in opinion of Joe Biden and the baked-in opinion is he’s a good, decent, caring guy,” said Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania and a Biden backer. “That’s why he does better with older voters than everybody else.”
Rendell said Biden could point to proposed cost cuts for Social Security disability benefits and some Medicare benefits in Trump’s budget to further gain an advantage going forward.
Biden acknowledged he’s benefiting from Trump’s stumbles this week. “I’m getting a little bit of help from the president, from some of the bizarre things he says out there,” he told donors during a virtual fund-raiser on Wednesday.
But it’s unclear how long that will last, given the virus has made the already suspect art of political predictions all but impossible. By this fall, cases could subside and the economy may have clawed itself back from 30 million job losses so far. Voters may then credit Trump, and reelect him. Or cases could spike back up, causing another wave of shutdowns and layoffs that could sink Trump’s chances.
Trump predicted Thursday that a “spectacular” economy would come back soon. But evidence from the last recession suggests that older Americans often had a harder time getting rehired after layoffs, meaning the economic effects of the current slowdown could linger longest for this group.
“I’m concerned about the prospects for those who may not have adequate retirement savings not being able to find work when the coast clears,” said Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging.