Bob Banion has been a Republican all his life. A 68-year-old sales manager from Harleysville, Pa., he voted for Donald Trump in 2016. But he’s felt his political center shifting over the last four years — along with his support for the president.
“As you get older in life, you start to move toward the left, when you’re thinking about health care, when you’re thinking about other people’s rights and futures,” Banion said. “Older people believe in class, believe in dignity, believe in doing the right thing. And you see all [Trump’s] doing to break that down. I am really disgusted I voted for him.”
Trump, who needs to win states like Pennsylvania and hopes to hold onto supporters like Banion, may have a lurking problem. National polling averages show he’s in a relative dead heat with Joe Biden among voters over 65, a group he won by 10 points in 2016. In recent polling of Pennsylvania voters, Trump comes up a few points short of Biden with voters over 45, according to an April Fox poll. (Pollsters use varying age groupings.)
How to explain the Trump senior slide? His opponent this time, Biden, polls better with seniors than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. (Trump appears to be losing across the board with voters who said they backed him as a protest vote against Clinton). Another factor is likely Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected the elderly.
"Seniors have felt the wrath of this pandemic more than any other age cohort,” said Chris Borick, a pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "By numbers and health effects, it’s been devastating. The concern levels we’ve seen, when we’ve polled, are highest among seniors, and that, of course, could be bleeding into their appraisal of the president.”
Fran Johannes, a 77-year-old retired educator in Newtown Square, put it more bluntly.
“A lot of seniors, they’re seeing their friends die,” said Johannes, who switched her party registration from Republican in order to vote for a “viable alternative" to Trump. “I just find him offensive. I don’t like his ethics.”
Johannes opposed Trump before the virus outbreak — she left her ballot for president blank in 2016. But watching his handling of COVID, she said, “just accentuated his anti-science ... anti-facts attitude." She thinks some peers may be starting to feel similarly.
“Seniors, they’re taking a look at this and they’re seeing family members are out of work, they may be losing their homes, and they’re also very concerned about seeing their children and grandchildren," Johannes said. A close friend called her recently, upset she hadn’t been able to attend her granddaughter’s graduation. "There was no party, no graduation. No nothing. I think that is starting to have people take a look and say ‘Could something have been done? Could this have been managed better?’ ”
Johannes counts herself lucky. The mother of three and grandmother of seven had to miss a few birthdays and Mother’s Day with the family, but on the whole she’s felt connected to them.
Republicans have handily won the senior vote going back to the 1970s with few exceptions (Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Al Gore in 2000 eked out wins among older voters). Voters 60 and over consistently turn out at higher rates than other age groups.
It’s a key constituency in Pennsylvania, where the population is older than the national average. And people older than 45 cast a higher share of the 2016 vote in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan, and Florida than their age bracket did nationally, according to an analysis by the liberal Center for American Progress. Any sort of slide could matter given the small margins by which Trump carried those states.
“This is historic,” said Patrick Murray, a pollster at Monmouth University in New Jersey. "The fact that we’re seeing this already in the data and it’s holding is something unusual and I’m sure it’s something the campaign is paying close attention to.”
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, said senior citizens appreciate the president’s coronavirus leadership.
“Seniors also care about who can restore the economy, who will stand up to China, and who will put America first in every decision,” he said. “They care about a strong military, looking after veterans, and protecting Social Security and Medicare.”
The reliability of older voters could make them an even more critical constituency in an election in which many people are adjusting to voting by mail.
“With the uncertainty of how voting will even happen in November, that could be pretty significant," Murray said. “Seniors will vote any way they can.”
Publicly available polling data don’t always break down the race and gender of seniors, so it’s hard to tell more about who is abandoning Trump. But Murray said it’s most likely older white voters, because senior voters of color tend to lean Democratic.
For Democrats, strategizing how to beat Trump has been a push and pull between attracting new, younger voters and holding onto — or poaching from Trump — older, more moderate voters. Since Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race, Biden has tried to appeal to the liberal base of the party. But he also wants to remain a viable option for Republicans who oppose Trump.
Johannes plans to vote for Biden, but she’s paying careful attention to his running-mate pick. John McCain lost her vote in 2008 when he chose Sarah Palin. She hopes he selects Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; she’d have to think carefully if he picks someone she finds too liberal, like Stacey Abrams. "I’ll say that I hope to vote for Biden,” Johannes said.
Banion wasn’t a Biden fan previously. In 2008 and 2012 he wrote in former Army Gen. Colin Powell for president.
He wishes the Democrats’ nominee was younger, a little sharper, but he thinks Biden’s “heart is in the right place and he seems to be respected in Washington and internationally.”
Banion also feels a connection to the former vice president’s personal tragedies. Biden lost his first wife and daughter in a car accident, and later in life, his son Beau, to brain cancer. Banion’s only son died in a car accident in 2011.
“I’m tired of politicians that are so polished. ... Joe Biden comes across very human-like. He comes across as somebody to me that cares," Banion said. “I just think he’s smart enough that he will surround himself with the best people.”
Polls shift, of course, and the softness in Trump’s support from older voters could be a reaction to the virus crisis at its peak. November is more than five months away.
And many older voters back Trump.
Charlotte George, 75, of Muncy Valley, Sullivan Couny, is a registered Democrat who plans to vote for the president in November. The great-grandmother of six opposes abortion rights and is frustrated with how far left the Democrats have moved on the issue. While she’s supporting Trump again this fall, she offered that she thinks Biden would make the better leader.