The new twist on the political power of seniors
October 1, 2020
“Even slight Trump erosions and/or Biden inroads with seniors will make the difference in the election.”- Salena Zito, CNN political analyst, in PJ Media
“This year, retaining the support of seniors is obviously central to Trump’s reelection chances. But a number of polls released [the last week of June] show that he has slipped badly in this key demographic.” - John Cassidy, The New Yorker
What is the source of the new-found senior power? Some of it can be attributed to the historic appreciation seniors have of the vote. Traditionally about 70% or more of seniors vote in presidential elections, which is double or more compared to other demographic slices of the electorate. That gives seniors more active voters than any other age group. Moreover, as baby boomers continue to age, the number of seniors in the total population continues to grow.
In addition, unlike other age cohorts within the electorate, in recent years seniors have been changing their political preferences in droves. Take the case of Florida, for example, a critical swing state that can make or break a presidential election. Four years ago an exit poll found that about 65% of Florida seniors over age 65 voted for Trump, and about 40% voted for Hillary Clinton, giving Trump a 1.5% lead in the state. However, in early September of this year a statewide poll found that 54% of seniors were backing Biden, while only 40% were backing Trump. This pushes Biden to a 3% overall lead in the state.
Florida is not alone. These dramatic changes in senior political preferences have been taking place in other influential swing states with high proportions of seniors such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and North Carolina.
How do we explain these dramatic shifts in senior politics? Numerous polls in recent months point to growing dissatisfaction among seniors with Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, his persistent attacks on Social Security, and his response to social unrest in urban areas.
In addition, senior political power is greatly magnified by the Electoral College, in which the swing states play pivotal roles. This is very important, if a tad obscure. Here’s a little refresher on the Electoral College, established by the 12th amendment to the Constitution:
On or before the first Tuesday in November, voters cast their ballots for a presidential candidate. These votes do not directly elect the president. Rather, they apply to a group of Electoral College electors who, in most states, pledge to vote for a specific candidate in the Electoral College. The electors are selected by the political parties to cast votes for president and vice president.
The president and vice president who win the popular vote in a state receive all of the state’s Electoral College votes. In this way relatively small changes in the popular vote in a key state can have a huge impact in the Electoral College vote. The winner of the race is the candidate who receives a majority (270 or more) of the 538 Electoral College votes. So, it is possible for an elected president to come in second in the popular vote, yet win the presidency because he or she won in the Electoral College. This happened in 2016 in the case of President Trump, who had 2.9 million fewer popular votes than Hillary Clinton.
There is an additional factor regarding senior political power – a dark and perhaps morbid possibility. The research findings were published under the title, “Mass casualty event scenarios and political shifts: 2020 election outcomes and the U.S. COVID-19 pandemic,” by A.F. Johnson, et. al., in the April 2020 issue of Administrative Theory & Praxis. According to the authors,
“A Pew Research Center (2018) poll on the 2016 presidential election found that individuals age 65 or older made up 27% of voters while those aged 18 to 29 made up 13%. U.S. Census (2019) data indicate that these two groups of Americans are roughly equal in terms of the population yet this difference in voter participation gives older Americans a disproportionately large influence in elections. The loss of a significant number of older individuals [resulting from coronavirus mortality] could reshape U.S. politics. This could be particularly true in the U.S. presidential election as critical swing states were won by Trump with very narrow margins including Michigan... Wisconsin... and Pennsylvania.”
Political beliefs and voting behavior are highly volatile and notoriously difficult to predict. Nevertheless, by our presence -- and perhaps by our absence -- we seniors are likely to have an outsized influence on the upcoming elections.