Defection of white seniors is troubling sign for Trump

The coronavirus pandemic is eroding Donald Trump’s popularity among a group that was crucial to his 2016 victory — older white Americans — a worrying sign for the president’s re-election hopes.

According to a New York Times-Siena College poll released last week, two-fifths of white voters aged 65 and over say they do not approve of the way Mr Trump has been handling coronavirus and the George Floyd protests.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden now holds a six-point advantage among seniors in battleground states, compared to Mr Trump’s one-point lead in the survey in October 2019 and a 13-point lead in autumn 2016. Nationally, Mr Biden leads Mr Trump by one-point among this age group.

The results fit with recent polls from Quinnipiac University, which last month found Mr Biden leading among voters 65 and over by 10 points, and a Fox News poll which showed Mr Biden narrowly pulling ahead in this demographic in April.

The Republican party is now fighting back. GOP lawmakers are calling for investigations into five Democratic governors’ handling of coronavirus in nursing homes, arguing that their actions had been a “death sentence” for tens of thousands of elderly Americans. Mr Trump in late May hosted a Rose Garden event touting his new plan to lower the cost of insulin for elderly Americans declaring: “I hope that seniors are going to remember it, because Biden is the one that put us into the jam [of high insulin prices].”

Mr Trump on Sunday tried to show that he was still in favour among older voters by retweeting a video of a golf cart parade in his honour in the Villages — a Florida retirement community whose district he won with 70 per cent of the vote in 2016. The parade was confronted by elderly anti-Trump protesters.

“Thank you to the great people of The Villages,” the president tweeted.

But the video caused outrage as it captured one of his supporters yelling “white power” at the protesters, and the president later deleted it.

Robert Griffin, research director of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, which conducts a weekly survey of 6,000 voters, said older Americans had been moving away from Mr Trump since last summer. But the pandemic had heightened concerns about the president among the demographic most at risk from Covid-19, he said.

“There is a certain amount of shock when essentially what Trump tells senior citizens is: Drop dead, opening business is more important,” said Joe DiSano, a Democratic strategist in Michigan. “I don’t think that particular demographic quite expected that [they are] going to be ground in the gears of commerce. You can see folks recoil from that.”

In the Scottsdale area of Arizona, Bob Plous, an 84-year-old retiree who previously worked in the real estate business in Michigan, said it “would have to take something really magical” to vote again for Mr Trump, after he did so four years ago.

“I think voting for Trump was a situation where I was so against Hillary that he was the only person. I knew Trump was going to be a little odd but I still felt he was going to be a better choice than Hillary was. I felt that Israel needed a friend after Obama,” said Mr Plous, who is Jewish.

On that front, he said, Mr Trump had delivered, with actions such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and pushing the US out of the Iran nuclear deal.

“I think he has done some good things,” Mr Plous said. “The problem is he’s so clumsy and so crazy in what he says I think that what he’s done is embarrass the country, and I don’t know if we can keep on with that . . . I just can’t put an ‘X’ on that guy’s name. There are just too many things that are major, major things that are so irritating that it goes from a hand grenade to an atomic bomb if you add them all together.”

In North Carolina, Jay Copan, 68, a retired energy industry executive, said he had voted for Mr Trump four years ago but was backing Mr Biden — the first time he would vote for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter.

“I am socially and fiscally conservative and I’ve actually supported a number of things that have occurred during the Trump administration,” Mr Copan said, citing the justices that Mr Trump had appointed to the Supreme Court and lower courts; the reduced regulation; the lower taxes; the president’s energy policy. Those reasons, though, were not enough.

“The only crises that he’s faced are the coronavirus crisis and the George Floyd [protests]. There has been zero leadership on that.”

Mr Trump’s coronavirus press conferences had been a “complete nightmare”, Mr Copan added. “He had no understanding of how to let [the country’s top health experts Anthony] Fauci or Deborah Birx speak and just shut up.”

Susan MacManus, a professor emeritus at the University of South Florida, noted that “senior voters tend to be more law-and-order voters but also more health-focused voters . . . [In Florida] as in other places, older women who voted for Trump in 2016 who now criticise him point to his negative tweets and harsh personal attacks.” It was still unclear what proportion those people represented in Florida, but “our state is so divided that any loss of support among any group is worrisome — to both candidates”, she added.

One of the women who has turned against Mr Trump is Nancy Shively, a 63-year-old in Oklahoma who has voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election since 1976. But she changed her registration to Independent in the midst of the coronavirus crisis this April. 

“His response to the pandemic just appalled me. I just can’t even begin. His refusal to take responsibility, offloading the kinds of things the federal government should have been doing on to the state,” said Ms Shively, who like Mr Copan had contacted the group Republican Voters Against Trump to share her story. She characterised herself as pro-life but said: “I’ve got to put that issue aside and look at the bigger picture.”

However, some Republicans cautioned that Mr Trump could win back some older voters with his law-and-order pitch in the wake of the George Floyd protests and days of looting in some parts of the country.

Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee who has been critical of Mr Trump, said he had been appalled by the administration’s tear-gassing of protesters in Lafayette Square outside the White House, and sceptical of the president’s attacks on an autonomous area claimed by protesters for racial justice in Seattle.

But he said others in the country, particularly among the older demographic, were unlikely to see it that way: “Any minute we’re talking about some enclave in Seattle that now everybody in the country knows about and mobs of people pulling down statues regardless of who the statues are of, that allows Trump to use his very broad brush to paint the conversation how he wants to.”