President Trump is waging a battle against the coronavirus to recapture one of his most important demographics: the voters aged 65 and over who came out for him in droves in 2016 but have since soured on him due to the pandemic.
On Friday, Trump told seniors at a campaign event in Fort Myers, Florida, they would be “first in line” for a coronavirus vaccine, assuring the indoor and largely maskless crowd that he was “moving heaven and earth” to deliver this before 2021.
Trump, who in 2016 won seniors nationally by 9 percentage points against Hillary Clinton, 53% to 44%, is today neck and neck with Democratic nominee Joe Biden, both at 49%, according to recent polling by the Pew Research Center.
And though Trump won Florida’s seniors by 17 points in the last election, he trails Biden by 2 percentage points, 45% to 47%, according to an October New York Times/Siena College survey of likely voters.
The Trump campaign is moving to erase this gap through advertising touting his handling of the COVID-19 crisis and pitting him against Biden on issues such as Social Security and Medicare.
After a coronavirus bout that left him briefly hospitalized this month, the president has resumed daily rallies.
Though seniors have been leaning toward the Republican Party since 2004, the trend appears to be slowing, with perceptions of Trump among older voters shifting since 2016, said Rob Griffin, research director of the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group, which surveys about 6,000 voters nationwide each week.
If you asked people how they viewed candidates Trump and Clinton in 2016, Trump was more likely to be seen as centrist, a perception held both by the general public and seniors, Griffin said.
“Fast-forward to 2020, and while Joe Biden is seen as just about as moderate as Hillary Clinton, interestingly enough, for Donald Trump, that number plummeted. There’s not nearly as many Americans who see him as moderate anymore,” Griffin said. “And among seniors, which is a more conservative generation, this has potentially led them to be more favorable towards Joe Biden.”
Trump, Griffin said, “has lost that mantle of moderation that a lot of American voters actually do reward at the ballot box.”
Compounding this is COVID-19, he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80% of coronavirus deaths are among people aged 65 and over.
Florida Rep. Donna Shalala, a Democrat and close friend of White House Coronavirus Task Force member Dr. Anthony Fauci, said voters in her Miami district are blaming Trump for this, along with Gov. Ron DeSantis, a close Trump ally who joined him in Fort Myers on Friday.
“They’ve turned a crisis into a tragedy,” Shalala, 79, told the Washington Examiner. Seniors, in particular, are mortified “the president is spreading the virus with his rallies at night.”
“One woman said to me, ‘He tried to kill us,'” Shalala, who served as secretary of health and human services under Bill Clinton, said. The woman’s family had taken her out of her nursing home, and she attributed the deaths there to “a lack of leadership by the president.”
In Florida, about 3 in 5 votes cast will be by someone aged 50 and over, and as high as 1 in 3 by someone aged 65 and over, said AARP Florida state Director Jeff Johnson. Social Security, Medicare, and the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs are ranked as the most important issues.
“This year, we’ve seen polling that indicates that the coronavirus ranks near those other three issues,” Johnson added.
At the 60 Plus Association, a conservative group that bills itself as “the right alternative to AARP,” the effort to reach the more than 52 million people aged 65 and over is a high priority, aided by the dulcet tones of Pat Boone, a “secret weapon,” the group’s President Jim Martin said.
“When he calls seniors, he moves the needle,” Martin told the Washington Examiner. “We often tell them, as Pat Boone tells them, to do your patriotic duty and get out and vote. And they will do that.”
Making a similar generational appeal, Trump on Friday honored veterans of the Korean War and Second World War in the audience, billing his administration’s response to the coronavirus, “the largest mobilization since World War II.”
Results from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Health Tracking Poll, conducted Oct. 7-12 and published Friday, found that among registered voters 65 and over, 27% pointed to COVID-19 as the issue that would most influence their vote for president this year, while a further 12% said healthcare. The sample size for ages 65 and over is 346, with a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percentage points.
“Biden has somewhat of an edge over the president, particularly when it comes to determining the future of the ACA, or maintaining protections for people with preexisting conditions,” said Liz Hamel, KFF public opinion and survey research director. But on prescription drug costs, “Biden doesn’t have a clear advantage.”
Fifty percent of respondents favor Biden’s approach to lowering prescription drug costs, while 45% favor Trump, whose latest healthcare push promises seniors a $200 prescription drug card.
But Hamel warned against drawing strong conclusions based on the priorities voters have indicated. “Issues are just one part of what determines people’s votes,” she said.