Trump won the senior vote because they thought he was best on the economy – not immigration

Voters aged 65 and over have chosen the Republican candidate at every United States presidential election since Al Gore became the last Democrat to win them, in 2000. Many pre-election polls showed Joe Biden might buck the trend: YouGov’s final poll had Biden ahead among seniors by 4 percentage points, for example. The pandemic provided a potentially strong reason for seniors to pick Biden, given the increased risk from COVID-19 for older people. But the early post-election polls showing that despite his wins in the popular vote and the Electoral College, Biden lost senior voters by 51-48% nationally.This was an improvement on Hillary Clinton’s 52-45% loss among seniors in 2016, but Democracy Corps, which carries out post-election polls following every national election cycle in the U.S., found an even wider margin among senior voters in the battleground states, 57-43% in favour of President Trump over Joe Biden.

The pandemic had some impact on older voters, but not enough to swing them decisively to Biden. The Democracy Corps poll asked people who voted for or considered each candidate what factors (from a given list) drew them toward that candidate, and pushed them away from the other. For seniors, the single biggest factor that drew them to Biden was “to deal with COVID”, but it only attracted 30% of them, a smaller share than for any other age group. Similarly, 32% said that Trump’s handling of the pandemic put them off, but again this was a smaller factor than it was for voters under 40. A direct comparison of the candidates in terms of their ability to deal with a pandemic showed a majority of seniors actually favoured Trump, although a smaller majority than that which voted for him.

Seniors picked Donald Trump largely because they thought he would be best for the economy. 47% of seniors who chose or considered Trump said it was because he created a strong economy and could end the recession. No other factor was picked by more than 25% of these voters. Furthermore, when asked to compare the candidates’ ability to handle the economy, seniors said Trump would be better than Biden by an even bigger margin than they ended up voting by.

Smaller factors helping Trump among senior voters were law and order, and his stance toward China. Being tough on China was the second-most popular reason to pick Trump among this group, and in a direct comparison of the candidates they again favoured Trump’s stance on China over Biden’s by a bigger margin than his vote share. Similarly, Trump outscored Biden on law and order among this group by more than his vote share.

Trump’s 2016 candidacy and the early years of his presidency were characterised by an emphasis on immigration, including his proposed border wall. Yet this was not such a significant factor this time for the senior voters who picked Trump. While they favoured Trump over Biden to deal with immigration, this was by a smaller margin than their votes for Trump; and further, only 20% picked his border wall and tough stance on immigration as a reason to vote for Trump.

Overall attitudes toward immigration and diversity among senior voters should also discourage the view that they picked Trump for these reasons. By a margin of 64-26%, senior voters in the Democracy Corps battleground poll picked the statement “Immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents”, rather than “Immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care”. They also picked a statement in support of racial and ethnic diversity over one criticising it by a margin of 76-15%. Only on a pair of statements about racial discrimination against Black people did seniors equivocate: equal numbers (44%) picked each of: “Racial discrimination is the main reason why many Black people can’t get ahead these days” and “Black people who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition”. This is in contrast with other age groups, all of which endorsed the statement blaming racial discrimination.

Seniors have been a solid voting bloc for Republican presidential candidates this century, and despite indications that that would change this cycle, Trump managed to retain a majority among them. His exploitation of law and order was a factor, but the key to his over-performance among this group was the economy and their belief that he had the credentials to get the U.S. out of its recession. This dominated any reservations they had about his handling of the pandemic.