By Geoffrey Skelley | FiveThirtyEight
In recent voting history, younger voters have voted more Democratic and older voters tend to vote more Republican. That helped push Trump over the top in 2016 but there are signs that he is losing that key demographic in this Coronavirus election year.
There are different “gaps” in American politics, but one that has consistently shown up in recent presidential elections is the age gap. That is, younger voters tend to vote more Democratic and older voters tend to vote more Republican.
In 2016, for instance, President Trump performed best among voters 65 years and older. He also won among those between the ages of 45 and 64. So looking ahead to November, you might expect Trump to once again do well with older voters. However, recent public polls — and the president’s own private polling — suggest that Trump may be doing worse among older voters against former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
In national head-to-head polls conducted since April 1, Trump is barely breaking even with most older Americans — and in some age groups, he’s even trailing Biden by as much as 1.4 points (see 45- to 64-year-olds). (Pollsters don’t all use the same age brackets, so there is some overlap in the different age categories.)
Trump is polling worse with older voters than in 2016
Comparison of Donald Trump’s 2016 vote margin and the average margin in national head-to-head polls between Trump and Joe Biden since April 1, by different age groups
|AGE GROUP||TRUMP 2016 MARGIN||TRUMP 2020 MARGIN||DIFFERENCE|
|45 to 64||+4.0||-1.4||-5.4|
|50 to 64||+5.8||+0.6||-5.2|
Polls were averaged by pollster to avoid overweighting one pollster.
The most startling shift, though, is among voters age 65 and older. Four years ago, Trump bested Hillary Clinton by 13 points, 55 percent to 42 percent, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a survey of more than 60,000 voters organized by Harvard University and administered by YouGov. But now Biden narrowly leads Trump 48 percent to 47 percent, based on an average of 48 national polls that included that age group.1 If those figures hold until November, they would represent a seismic shift in the voting behavior of America’s oldest voters.
The last Democratic nominee who won voters 65 and older was Al Gore in 2000, according to national exit poll data. But at the time, that was the trend. Older Americans — those who came of age during the Great Depression and New Deal era, a period in which the Democratic Party was dominant — were disproportionately Democratic-leaning in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And political science has found evidence that party loyalties developed at a young age can persist over the course of a person’s life.
But it’s not just among voters 65 and older where Trump is slipping. He’s also fallen almost as far among voters 55 and older. Trump is essentially tied with Biden among that age group, even after winning these voters by 10 points in 2016, 53 percent to 43 percent, according to the CCES. Trump’s numbers have also fallen with 45- to 64-year-olds, as well as 50- to 64-year-olds (an alternate category employed by many pollsters), but the last Democrat to win 45- to 64-year-olds was Barack Obama in 2008 — albeit barely, 50 percent to 49 percent.
We don’t have as much state-level polling to work with, but there’s evidence that Biden is also doing better with older voters in some key swing states. Take two recent surveys from Florida, a state with one of the oldest populations in the country. A Fox News poll from mid-April found Biden with a slim 3-point lead over Trump and running even among voters 45 and older, while a Quinnipiac University survey from the same period found Biden up 4 points overall in Florida and leading Trump 52 percent to 42 percent among voters 65 and older. If this holds, this would represent a big swing from 2016, when Trump won Florida voters 45 and older by 13 points, and those 65 and older by 22 points, according to the CCES.
But that’s a big if. Polls can — and will — shift between now and Election Day. We averaged a large number of national polls in our analysis (54 in total), but there was still a wide range in the margins from pollster to pollster.
Part of that comes down to the challenges of estimating data for subgroups — like different age groups — which have smaller sample sizes and larger margins of error. But there were also sizable differences from pollster to pollster, even those using large sample sizes. For instance, in early April, the Pew Research Center found Biden trailing Trump by 9 points among those 65 and older, more in line with Trump’s 2016 margin. But throughout April and early May, Morning Consult found Biden and Trump about tied, on average, among that same age group.
Democrats also tend to poll better among registered voters than among likely voters, the group most pollsters are interviewing now, so Biden’s overall lead might be smaller among those most likely to vote in November.
Still, an average of recent tracking polls from Firehouse Strategies/Øptimus — one of the only pollsters currently using a likely-voter screen — has Biden up by 2 points among those 65 and older and up by about 7 points among 45- to 64-year-olds. So he holds a small lead, but nevertheless, it’s still a sign that Trump is currently underwater with older voters.
Going forward, we’ll keep a careful eye on things to see if this shift in voter sentiment holds. Because if it does, it could have a major impact on the outcome in November.