Why Older Voters Embraced Trump
It’s become fashionable to blame Millennials for not doing enough to get Hillary Clinton elected President, but less attention has been paid to why the supposedly wisest and sagest elements of our electorate voted in droves for the most unqualified candidate in modern American history.
From the start, let me be clear that I’m talking about older voters on the margin and not trying to generalize how all older voters think. In other words, the analysis below is concerned mostly with “swing” older voters who provided Donald Trump much of his demographic margin of victory over Hillary Clinton.
Indeed, Trump’s support among older voters dates back to the earliest days of his candidacy. And while it looks like Trump didn’t really outperform 2012 nominee Mitt Romney among older voters, it’s clear that he mobilized a branch of older voters in the most crucial swing states that more than made up for his insanely low favorability ratings.
So, why did these older voters turn out for Trump, even when they—to this day—tell pollsters how little they approve of him?
Stated Preferences Versus Revealed Preferences. Hillary Clinton may have been a historically unpopular candidate, but Donald Trump was even worse, often falling ten points behind in terms of favorability. But older voters are much more partisan than younger voters and far less likely to hold their own politicians to high standards. This is especially true of Republican-leaners. Consider that a Congress entirely controlled by Republicans has a lower approval rating among Republicans than it does Democrats:
Supporters of the majority party in Congress tend to rate the institution more favorably than do supporters of the minority party, but the GOP bucked the trend when its supporters' approval did not improve after the party took the second chamber of Congress in 2014. Despite controlling both the House and Senate, Republicans (14%) are currently less likely than Democrats (22%) to approve of the job Congress is doing.
In other words, older voters who already lean Republican will tell pollsters they disapprove of Republicans, but then gladly vote for them anyways. Democrats have no such luxuries when it comes to their leaners, who tend to be younger, more diverse, and more likely to stay home or vote third-party when things get rough. As others have observed, tens of millions of older voters will vote for a ham sandwich if it has an “R” next to it on the ballot.
Older Voters are Shielded From Trump’s Priorities. Trump’s stated agenda of repealing Obamacare, of building a wall along the entire Mexican border, of mass deportations, and of creating a registry for Muslims is uniquely tailored to exempt imposing costs on older voters. Voters over 65 have their own socialized medicine in the form of Medicare, and Paul Ryan’s plan to voucherize Medicare rather conveniently exempts current enrollees. Even the older voters who benefit tremendously from Obamacare could vote for repeal with some measure of faith that they themselves wouldn’t be left out in the cold. And Trump’s plan to build a border wall famously (and ludicrously) exempts anyone in America from having to pay a cent for it. Name the “get tough” policy Trump is proposing, and it’s usually not older voters who will bear the brunt.
Older Voters are Particularly Receptive to Trump’s Dystopian Vision of America. Whether or not you agree with Trump’s assertions that our inner cities are hellholes or that immigrants are ruining the country, it’s clear that older voters are similarly motivated by similar concerns. In general, older voters are wealthier and have a higher standard of living, but they are also most apt to project dire circumstances on the country, even when they themselves are doing relatively well:
“I am 72 years old, and I have seen our country absolutely fall apart,” Jim Smith, a gray-haired grandfather with an eagle on his T-shirt, told me. Smith retired to the beach after a career in the Army that took him all over the world; at one point, he worked for NATO running logistics in Bosnia. But today, he did not like what he saw all around him.
“Our economy is depleted, our military forces are depleted. We’re a country that's in trouble,” he said, ticking off the issues: Spanish language everywhere, babies slaughtered by abortion. Muslims invading America, abetted by Democrats. “What culture do we have anymore?” he asked.
Again, we can argue whether these kinds of perceptions are grounded in reality, but for Republican primary voters (who skew older) and older voters in general, believing in a fallen America has real political advantages. There’s a symbiosis at play: agreeing with Trump’s assessment of America gives moral cover to advocate extreme measures to correct extreme problems. Internalizing that America is a Third World nation justifies radical steps that basic human decency, finding common ground, and love for one’s neighbor would otherwise prohibit.
Nostalgia is One Hell of a Drug. Polls show most older voters think America was a better place back in the 1950’s. That’s a country with no civil rights, no feminist movement, no gay marriage, no Internet, no smartphones, and no modern medicine. Of course, when people pine for the good old days, they never have to give up smartphones or modern medicine or civil rights or anything else. But they can still indulge in the fantasy. As the Daily Show pointed out, most people long for these times because they were kids back then and blissfully unaware of the real divisions and problems in this country. Trump offered to take America back to a time that never existed, and older votes leapt at the chance. We’ll see how the rest of the country reacts when the trade-offs of making such nostalgia a reality become apparent.