The Most Powerful People in American Politics Are Over 65

President Trump is 73. His leading rival is 77. And many of their strongest supporters — vulnerable to the coronavirus but enormously influential politically — are eligible for Social Security.

by Sabrina Tavernise

Joseph R. Biden Jr. wasn’t accustomed to overflow audiences.

It was a Tuesday evening in February and Mr. Biden had limped into Las Vegas, bruised from his disappointing showings in the Iowa and New Hampshire nominating contests. But at Harbor Palace Seafood Restaurant, a dim sum spot here, a crowd of retirees had packed in to see the 77-year-old former vice president, forming a line that snaked out the door.

“I don’t like Warren and I don’t like Bernie because they want ‘Medicare for all,’” said Alan Davis, 80, dismissing the single-payer health care system promoted by Senator Bernie Sanders, 78. “I’m totally against it. I have a good health plan.”

Mr. Biden is “really human. He can feel how an ordinary person feels,” said Minerva Honkala, a retired teacher who identified herself as “65-plus.”

Mr. Biden’s ability to connect with Ms. Honkala’s age group — through his résumé and more centrist tendencies, his talk of shared values and his perceived general election promise — helped him regain his footing in Nevada, surge to victory in South Carolina and catapult to his perch as the likely Democratic nominee. It was a rapid reversal of fortunes fueled by overwhelming support first from older black voters and, ultimately, from older voters more broadly, a key part of his larger coalition.

Now that age group is top of mind for many Americans as the nation confronts the staggering costs of the coronavirus crisis. It’s a vulnerable population in terms of the outbreak — and has become the focus of the public conversation. Health officials are pleading for young people to stay home to protect their parents and grandparents, while in Texas, Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor, suggested that older people might be willing to take risks in order to protect the economy, sparking a national controversy.

But politically, the primary results this election season have highlighted the extraordinary, sustained power of older Americans: Exit polls, surveys and interviews with political strategists and demographers show that the concerns and preferences of these voters have played a critical role in defining the trajectory of the Democratic race so far, and are poised to do so in the general election as well.

In Florida, a state with a significant retiree population, Mr. Biden won the Democratic primary last week by nearly 40 percentage points, a reflection of both his momentum in the race and his strength with constituencies including more moderate Latino voters, African-Americans and college-educated white suburbanites. Among voters aged 65 and over, Mr. Biden’s advantage was even starker: He was the choice of 70 percent of those voters, while 5 percent said the same of Mr. Sanders, according to a National Election Pool pre-election survey of Florida voters.

“Older voters, after African-American voters, have been the single most important constituency for Joe Biden,” said Celinda Lake, a veteran Democratic pollster and political strategist who works with the Biden team but spoke in her personal capacity.

Younger voters have had “tremendous influence” in shaping the contours of the Democratic debate, pushing boldly progressive ideas on matters like student loan debt reform to the fore, said John Della Volpe, the director of polling at Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.

When it comes to electoral outcomes, however, young people are being outflanked: “Rather than increasing their influence in 2020, what’s happened is, their parents and grandparents have increased their influence,” he said.

Those Democratic grandparents, especially, tend to be more moderate, more swayed by traditional government experience and more keenly focused on the tactics they believe are needed to defeat President Trump, strategists and pollsters said.

Mr. Biden, who once faced significant competition for older Americans, emerged in recent weeks as the dominant front-runner among those highly committed Democratic voters who have now helped bring him to the cusp of his party’s presidential nomination.

Older voters have punched above their political weight for years, with turnout among those 65 and older often double, or more, that of the youngest voters. As Americans age and become more rooted in their communities, political participation tends to rise with their stake in society.

Even in the midterm elections in 2018, hailed as a high-water mark for youth voting because the share of 18- to 24-year-olds nearly doubled from the previous midterm election, the gap with older voters remained about the same. About 66 percent of eligible older people turned out, compared with about 36 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

“There’s no magic age for becoming a regular voter,” said Carroll Doherty, the director of political research at the Pew Research Center. “But when people move into their 40s, that’s when you see voter turnout grow.”

Certainly, Mr. Sanders, the overwhelming favorite with younger voters, is continuing to campaign. And while the Vermont senator has acknowledged that younger voters did not appear to turn out at the rate he had hoped for, polls and exit surveys show that Mr. Biden faces major challenges with that constituency, a liberal slice of the electorate that, his advisers acknowledge, he will need to energize if he is the nominee.

His standing with older voters is also poised to look different in a general election, where that demographic is again influential — but traditionally has tilted much more conservative.

“The irony is that the pattern is about to reverse in the general,” Ms. Lake said, pointing to Mr. Trump’s overall strength with older voters, even as she added that “Donald Trump is despised by younger voters.”

The virus has thrown politics completely, and unpredictably, up in the air. What will happen in Florida’s retirement communities — some of the most vulnerable in the nation to the virus — if Mr. Trump’s push to reopen the country fast comes to pass? It’s a question with potentially partisan implications.

Older people have long leaned Republican. A majority have chosen Republicans in four of the last seven presidential elections, according to Mr. Frey. In recent years they have also become more demographically distinct from the rest of the country: About 78 percent of eligible senior voters are white, compared with just 67 percent of eligible voters in the country as a whole.

Older voters favored Mr. Trump in 2016. In Pennsylvania, they preferred him by a 10-point margin, Mr. Frey said. In all, 52 percent of older people — and 58 percent of white seniors — voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, Mr. Frey said.

Seniors also show up, particularly in swing states. In the Midwestern states of Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016, turnout among older voters was higher than the national average for that age group, according to Mr. Frey. In Michigan, for example, 74 percent of older eligible voters turned out, compared with just 38 percent of 18- to 24-year-old eligible voters.

This presents a challenge for Mr. Biden, should he win the nomination: how to get younger voters — who did not prefer him to begin with — to turn out for him, while persuading their older counterparts, who tend to choose Republicans, to vote for him over Mr. Trump.

In recent weeks, Mr. Biden has increased his efforts to appeal to younger and more progressive voters, ramping up outreach and embracing portions of proposals from Mr. Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren that take aim at the student debt burden.

But throughout the primary contest, Mr. Biden’s most consistent overtures were to older voters, both substantively and through explicit and more subtle messaging.

His inaugural bus trip across Iowa was called the “No Malarkey” tour, a phrase that struck some younger voters as dated, following Mr. Biden’s proactive mention, in an autumn debate, of a record player. It didn’t seem out of step with the older crowds at his events, where Mr. Biden would often aim to connect over what he cast as similar upbringings.

“The way we were raised, all of you were raised, the way I was raised, everything’s about integrity and decency,” he said in Emmetsburg, Iowa, in December.

On the policy front, his experience in foreign affairs and his support for building on the Affordable Care Act while allowing Americans the option of maintaining their private insurance resonated with older voters.

There were “almost pragmatic, urgent worries about health care that people want addressed in the short term,” Stanley B. Greenberg, a longtime Democratic pollster, said when asked about the age gap at play in the primary. Several Sanders priorities, he continued, including “Medicare for all, climate change and student debt — almost all of them are kind of long term.”

Younger voters who were focused on the future, he added, “have more space to deal with it.”

Mr. Biden struggled in Iowa and New Hampshire, when he faced a crowded primary field and significant competition for many demographics. Over the summer and into the fall, older people often voiced concerns about Mr. Biden’s sharpness and stamina. Voters who were close to Mr. Biden’s age were often keenly aware of their own limitations — and some worried about whether he faced the same challenges they did.

“Early on, they weren’t sold on Joe Biden,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “Many of them felt he was too old.”

Those voters, he said, were also drawn to candidates like Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota or former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. But as those candidates dropped out and endorsed Mr. Biden on the eve of Super Tuesday, he shored up his strength with older white voters, while his appeal to older black voters continued apace: He went on to win the support of a stunning 94 percent of black voters over the age of 60 in Mississippi, according to exit polls.

Older Americans will soon be even more important. Mr. Frey noted that the large “Baby Boom” generation has only just begun entering the older American voting bloc. He has calculated that the number of senior eligible voters will rise to 68 million in 2028 from 47 million in 2016.

“The second half of the boomer generation has yet to turn 65,” he said. “When more of them do, they are going to make this older voting bloc even more prized, especially in the northern swing states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.”

Mr. Biden, who was born in Scranton, Pa., and emphasizes his working-class roots, is not ceding those voters, and his allies argue that his strong performance with older voters in the primary signals an ability to cut into what has historically been a Republican advantage in the general election.

Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, said that Mr. Biden would offer a clear contrast with Mr. Trump’s record on health care and social safety net matters, promising that “older Americans will remember whose values align with theirs this fall.” Sarah Matthews, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, defended that record, calling Mr. Trump a “proven champion for seniors” — a sign of possible clashes to come.

But first, there is still a primary contest, and the age gap between Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders has been on vivid display all year. The senator favored large rallies that attracted devoted young people, while Mr. Biden’s events, even in his strongest states, tended to be smaller, with crowds that tilted older.

Now, because the coronavirus outbreak forced an end to traditional campaigning, Mr. Biden’s efforts to reach voters — old and young — are typically online anyway.

He and his team are working on a podcast and he has hosted a virtual happy hour with younger supporters — but his efforts have faced technological difficulties, and Mr. Biden has admitted it is challenging to adjust.

“As you can tell,” he wrote in a newsletter on Wednesday, “I’m still getting used to this virtual world we’re campaigning in.”

Sabrina Tavernise is a national correspondent covering demographics and is the lead writer for The Times on the Census. She started at The Times in 2000, spending her first 10 years as a foreign correspondent.

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