Millennials, Seniors are Spurning Trump. Why are Middle-Aged Voters Sticking with Him?

September 16, 2020by Alex Roarty, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
U.S. President Donald J. Trump is joined by members of the Coronavirus Task Force to deliver remarks on the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, April 23, 2020 in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Abaca Press/Pool/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Generation Z loathes him. Millennials overwhelmingly back his opponent. And even once-supportive seniors have turned away.

As his turbulent reelection bid enters its final phase, President Donald Trump has been hindered by lackluster approval from most generations of voters — with one important exception.

In poll after poll of the 2020 race, Trump receives his highest share of support from middle-aged men and women, an often overlooked demographic that is now playing a critical role in keeping the president’s electoral hopes alive against Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

These voters — older members of Generation X and younger Baby Boomers ranging in age from their late 40s to early 60s — are often the only age group that give Trump the majority of their support in national and battleground state surveys.

And while seniors, once regarded as the most pro-Trump generation, have soured on the president since the 2016 election, middle-aged voters remain as supportive as ever.

“They have been the one age group that has been with Trump,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “They look different this year because all the other age groups have moved toward Joe. But this is the one that hasn’t behaved differently than last time.”

Veteran pollsters and operatives say they can offer few certain explanations for why middle-aged voters haven’t wavered from the president — though they point to their relatively more favorable perceptions of the direction of the economy and the coronavirus pandemic, as well as their political upbringing during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, as contributing factors.

They also acknowledge that age groups often receive far less attention than racial and educational demographics when analyzing the election.

But in the final weeks of the presidential race, middle-aged voters — expected to make up more than one-third of the total electorate this year — will be a target for both campaigns, as Trump tries to retain his relatively high levels of support and Biden attempts to make the sort of inroads he’s made with older voters.

“These older middle-aged voters are pretty essential to Trump’s coalition, especially in the upper Midwest,” said Will Jordan, a Democratic pollster. “He can’t really win without them.”

In a national poll of the presidential race released last week from Quinnipiac University, Trump trailed Biden among almost every age group, even losing seniors by a four-point margin, 46% to 50%.

But among likely voters aged 50 to 64, the survey found Trump held a significant edge, attracting 53% support to Biden’s 44%.

It was a similar story in another national poll from Monmouth University, with Trump significantly losing to Biden among 35- to 49-year-olds (39% to 54%) and among seniors (43% to 54%). But for those between the ages of 50 and 64, the president led 51% to 44%.

The generational divide is stark in key battleground states as well. A poll of four of them — Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire and Wisconsin — from The New York Times and Siena College that was published Saturday found Trump leading Biden among voters aged 45 to 64 by a sizable 11-point margin, 52% to 41%, but trailing by a nearly equal 12-point margin among seniors, 40% to 52%.

And a recent poll of Wisconsin from Marquette University Law School found that among voters aged 45 to 59, Trump led Biden 52% to 40%. It was the only age group in the survey to give Trump a majority or plurality of its support. The poll found similar levels of support for Trump among middle-aged voters in a pair of previous polls.

“What we can consistently find is that the people from 40 to 59 are the strongest Trump supporters here,” said Charles Franklin, the director of Marquette’s poll. “And that’s been true for a good while.”

The difference in support for Trump between middle-aged voters and seniors would mark a big change from 2016. In that election, Trump won seniors over Hillary Clinton by seven points, 52% to 45%, according to exit polls, while winning voters aged 50 to 64 by a nearly identical eight-point margin, 52% to 44%.

A post-election study from the Pew Research Center found a similar result, with Trump winning seniors by a 9-point margin while winning the 50-to-65 age group by six points.

Pollsters disagree about the exact dimensions of this pro-Trump age group. To Franklin, the spike begins at 40 and dissipates when people enter their 60s. Other political experts say pro-Trump sentiment increases among people in their late 40s and doesn’t decline until they become senior citizens.

And as is sometimes the case with demographic subgroups, where data is harder to come by, some pollsters disagree that a split between middle-aged voters and seniors has emerged at all: An August survey from the Pew Research Center found both groups supported Trump at roughly equal rates.

But among those who see a split, there’s agreement that political sentiments don’t abruptly shift from year to year, instead existing on a continuum where the changes in allegiance occur gradually. And they agree that this pro-Trump cohort includes some members of both Generation X, defined as Americans aged between 40 and 55, and baby boomers, who are between 56 to 74.

“Between the baby boomers and Generation Xers, there’s a transition,” Franklin said.

Part of the reason these voters are more supportive of Trump than younger generations is they’re both whiter and are less likely to have received a college degree — two characteristics more common among GOP voters.

But if those characteristics were enough to push voters toward Trump, then seniors — a group with even fewer racial minorities — would be as supportive of the president.

Rather, Republicans and Democrats say middle-aged voters are influenced by their place in life and the time in which they formed their political identity. They’ve also had a different reaction to the coronavirus pandemic than older voters.

“Seniors are very concerned about their health and coronavirus,” said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster who said his own data shows Trump doing best among middle-aged voters. “Up until coronavirus, seniors were the most supportive group of President Trump, and they’re still more supportive than younger voters, but that support has tailed off a bit.”

Other Republicans said middle-aged voters are also more focused on the economy because, for many of them, it’s a period in their life when they are raising children and beginning to prepare for retirement.

“My sense is that when you are in the prime of your working career, you are worried about your job, you want to know how your 401(k) is going,” said Ryan Costello, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. “And between the tax cuts and deregulation agenda, prior to COVID-19, the economy was humming along.”

And while older generations might be put off by Trump’s style, the 44-year-old former congressman added, his generation is used to it.

“We’ve been watching reality TV for 30 years,” Costello said. “So, yeah, he says some crazy stuff. But some of it is kind of how we were raised. And I’m not justifying it or rationalizing it, but I think that could explain why that age cohort views him more favorably than others.”

White members of this age group are also just more fundamentally conservative than others. A study from Columbia University published last year found that a group of white voters labeled as “Reagan Conservatives,” those born between 1956 and 1980 (meaning they are between 40 and 64 years old now), have for decades been more supportive of Republican presidential candidates than the preceding and succeeding generation.

Many voters’ political identities are formed in their teens through early adulthood, the study noted. For those voters who are currently middle-aged, that meant their political identities were forged at a time when Reagan was declaring it “Morning in America.”

“This powerful imagery and the apparently overwhelming support of the American people no doubt had a powerful impact on the young cohort, who, 16 years old at the time, were squarely in the middle of their peak years of socialization,” wrote the paper’s authors, Yair Ghitza, Andrew Gelman and Jonathan Auerbach.

Pollsters point to these generational differences as part of the reason Biden is performing better among seniors, because an older generation of more liberal voters have now aged into that category since 2016. That would mean the Democratic nominee’s better showing with senior citizens is at least somewhat artificial, and not reflective of genuine shifts in voter preference.

Democrats said they aren’t worried about Trump’s popularity with middle-aged voters, arguing their support stands out only because the president is performing worse with every other age group.

But they acknowledge that it’s a group that’s unlikely to break from Trump anytime soon.

“There is a generation of younger Regan-era conservatives who have been one of the most conservative age groups in the electorate,” Jordan said. “And they make up much of that group Trump is holding onto in the middle.”


©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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