Trump is stuck in 2016, but older voters are panicked by the 2020 virus

President could heading for Herbert Hoover territory this fall if virus fears endure

Older voters were a key part of President Donald Trump’s 2016 coalition, but the incoherent contradictions in his coronavirus response put the allegiance of this vulnerable group in doubt this year, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Older voters were a key part of President Donald Trump’s 2016 coalition, but the incoherent contradictions in his coronavirus response put the allegiance of this vulnerable group in doubt this year, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 19, 2020 at 5:30am

Well into the 1970s, denunciations of Herbert Hoover were a routine ingredient in Democratic Party oratory. When you are president during an epic failure of government, as Hoover was at the onset of the Depression, impressions can linger for more than four decades. 

That is why it is easy to imagine that in 2060, the name Trump will still be synonymous with blithering incompetence in the face of a pandemic. And the word “McCarthyism” will be a historical artifact since the more recent label “Trumpism” would now define fact-free vitriolic smear campaigns. 

Rueful confession: These are time- capsule predictions since I, alas, will probably not be around to find out if I was right. 

More than two months after even Donald Trump realized that he couldn’t keep the COVID-19 infection rate down simply by keeping the Grand Princess cruise ship offshore, the president’s inflexibility in the face of the crisis remains baffling. 

Missed lessons

Trump frequently brags that he is a natural whiz at science because his uncle was on the faculty at MIT. But Trump never claims that he could be a 2020 version of Arthur Schlesinger because of his innate mastery of history. 

This is a president, after all, who seemed startled to learn that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and Frederick Douglass was already well known. Not to mention Trump’s misplaced certainty that the great influenza epidemic occurred in 1917 rather than 1918 as historians and other purveyors of “fake news” stubbornly insist. 

But, at age 73, Trump should know from life experience how a president behaves during a wrenching crisis. As a teenager, he undoubtedly watched on television John F. Kennedy’s grave Oval Office speeches to the nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis and saw the visible anguish of Lyndon Johnson after the Kennedy assassination.

Trump presumably paused his business career and his nights at Studio 54 long enough to witness the humility of Jerry Ford as he said, “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln,” after taking office following Richard Nixon’s resignation. 

And Trump may also remember Ronald Reagan’s moving words after the 1986 Challenger disaster and the grace that George W. Bush displayed in the days after 9/11. (OK, the Bush thing may be a stretch since Trump only seems to recall nonexistent visits to the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center.) 

The president’s lack of empathy and his inability to fake it might be fathomable in crass political terms if it were part of a winning campaign strategy. But only in the fever swamps of One America News Network does Trump appear to be prevailing by glossing over a death toll fast approaching 100,000.

At current rates, within about two weeks, the number of Americans who perished from COVID-19 will sadly become greater than the seating capacity of the nation’s largest  stadium: “The Big House” in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which holds about 108,000 football fans. 

Even in normal times, political forecasts are risky more than five months before a presidential election. And with the economy in free fall and the nation facing the greatest public health emergency in a century, no one can confidently predict the national mood in November. 

A vulnerable base

But if there is one factor that should panic Trump, it is the erosion of his support among older voters. In 2016, according to national exit polls, Trump ran ahead of Hillary Clinton in every age bracket above 40.

That margin approaches the vanishing point in many recent trial heats against Joe Biden. For example, a national CBS News Poll, released in early May, had Biden running virtually even with Trump among all voters over 45. The latest Economist/YouGov survey showed Biden ahead of Trump, 50 percent to 42 percent, among voters in the 45-64 age bracket, although the president did lead among voters eligible for Medicare. 

State polls display the same pattern. Trump carried Florida voters over the age of 50 by a double-digit margin in 2016, according to exit polls. But a mid-April Quinnipiac Poll in the state found Biden leading him by 10 points among voters over 65. In Michigan, another swing state where Trump narrowly prevailed in 2016, a mid-April Fox News poll had Biden leading the president by a 50 percent to 41 percent margin among voters over 45. 

The point is not to get bogged down in the numbers, especially since different pollsters break down the responses by age in different ways. Rather what matters is the general direction of the horse race preferences among voters who, because of age, are the most vulnerable to COVID-19. 

It can be easy for pursuable voters to fall for Trump’s nonstop juggling act of distractions when the issues at stake are abstract. For example, almost no one in Michigan or Florida has direct contact with Trump’s Great Wall or the president’s tariff barriers, let alone that mythical creature known as “Obamagate.”

But when you are in an age group prone to worrying about dying alone in a hospital or warned not to leave home except in emergencies, you tend to pay close attention to every statement from the White House. And you remember all the incoherent contradictions of Trump’s response to the virus. 

“Fears and dreams are what drive vote behavior,” explains Rick Ridder, a Denver-based Democratic consultant. “What we are seeing today is that the virus has quashed dreams and amplified fear. This is particularly true among seniors who fear the fulfillment of those dreams increasingly elusive.”

When a field of dreams becomes a nightmare landscape, it signals deep trouble for an incumbent president. Someone might mention to Trump that running for reelection in 1932, Herbert Hoover carried just six states with 59 electoral votes. 

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.