As a political observer and loyal Republican for nearly a half-century, I know well the GOP’s dependence on senior voters heading toward the 2022 midterm elections. But is it an over-dependence?
Over the last four presidential elections, the Republican candidate won 65-plus voters by an average marginal difference of eight percentage points – consistently the highest among the four standard voter age groups. Yet the 2020 election yielded the GOP’s smallest senior margin of victory when Donald Trump won only 52% compared to 47% for Joe Biden.
Even more concerning, those five percentage points were Trump’s largest victory margin among any age group. In second place were 45-to-64-year-old voters, whom he won by one percentage point, 50%-49%. Far behind were voters ages 30 to 44, whom Biden won by six percentage points, and he won 18-to-29-year-olds by a whopping 24 percentage points.
Nonetheless, my analysis last month for RealClearPolitics included some good news for seniors and the GOP: “In 2020, 65-plus were 22% of voters, while only 17% of the U.S. population, meaning seniors are ‘fighting above their weight’ by five percentage points.”
That fact prompted an email from Saul Anuzis, the president of “60 Plus” — an organization positioned as the conservative policy alternative to AARP, the political behemoth that tilts Democratic.
Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman, activist, and strategist, wrote, “Older voters are key for Republicans not just in the presidential, but in taking back the Senate and the House in 2022.”
Do the facts support that assumption? Let’s examine data from the last midterm election and recent RealClear Opinion Research polling to glean insight into seniors’ voting behavior.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2018 midterm election saw record turnout with 53.4% of the voting-age population casting ballots compared to 41.9% in 2014. The general consensus was anti-Trump sentiment drove the 11.5-percentage-point increase that dramatically flipped the House of Representatives to the Democrats (while Republicans maintained control of the Senate).
It is too early to predict if the 2022 midterms will generate a similar voter surge, but Republican leaders counting on seniors to help win back Congress should pay close attention to 2018 exit polls. Data shows 65-plus voters accounted for 26% of the electorate even though they were only 16.1% of the population. But (and this is a big “but”) only 50% of seniors voted Republican compared to 48% who supported Democrats. That two-percentage-point difference indicates that higher senior turnout alone does not proportionally equate to more Republican votes. Moreover, data showing seniors’ voting by race and party reveals a familiar GOP problem:
- Whites 65-plus voted 56% for Republicans, 43% for Democrats, and were 22% of voters.
- Blacks 65-plus voted 88% for Democrats, 11% Republican, and were 2% of voters.
- Hispanics 65-plus voted 71% Democrat, 25% Republican, and were 2% of voters.
Hence, if a record number of seniors turn out in the 2022 midterms, expect the impact of white GOP senior voters to be diminished due to increased numbers of white and non-white Democratic-voting seniors.
Republican leaders dream of a more “normal” 2014 midterm election with its low 41.9% turnout. Voters 65-plus were 22% of the electorate that year; 57% voted for Republicans and 41% for Democrats. The 2014 election cycle saw much backlash against President Obama, resulting in the GOP retaining the House and winning control of the Senate. Ah, the good old days.
Anuzis’ optimism about 2022 stems from an elemental tendency: “Seniors are the most loyal voting demographic in America, and they tend to vote conservative.” All true, and the 65-plus voter group is also growing by 0.4% annually — from 17% of the population in 2020 to a projected 21% by 2030.
Anuzis will try to leverage these demographics. “Many underestimate the power of the senior vote,” he says, “while others assume they are predominately liberal and only interested in government handouts. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Anuzis also cites a difference between the 2018 and 2022 midterms: “In 2018, the GOP had the political power, now the Democrats do and will have to own all of the disastrous policies leading up to the election.”
Whether seniors consider Biden’s policies “disastrous” remains to be seen, but surely they will turn out to vote in numbers greater than their percentage of the population. The new survey by RealClear Opinion Research found that 77% of 65-plus voters said they “definitely will be voting” in 2022, with 11% saying they “probably will be voting.” If these extraordinarily high turnout numbers hold, seniors will either be a blessing or a curse for Republicans eager to take back Congress.
Even though President Biden will not be on the ballot in the midterms, his popularity will significantly impact the outcome. At the early stages of the new administration, the RealClear survey found that 49% of 65-plus voters view Biden favorably and 50% unfavorably. But his job approval rating with seniors was slightly lower, with a net 47% saying “good” and net 52% “not so good.”
Seniors are apparently tougher on Biden than all voters because the RCP poll average has him with a 53.5% approval vs. 42.5% disapproval. By comparison, at this time in Donald Trump’s presidency, his RCP average poll rating was 41.1% approving with 52.6% disapproving.
Anuzis calls Trump “the wild card” in the 2022 election, but other, unforeseen ones are likely to emerge. For example, RCP’s Susan Crabtree last week wrote, “As of February, some 43 state legislatures had proposed more than 250 bills aimed at overhauling election laws” to counter Democrats’ efforts to expand mail-in voting. It would be ironic if new voting laws wind up subverting GOP midterm turnout among seniors, many of whom relish the convenience of absentee voting.
Ultimately, the Republican Party is waging a battle against Father Time by depending on predominantly white 65-plus voters to tilt elections in their favor. Those days are going, going, almost gone, since the 2018 midterms saw 18-to-29-year-olds vote Democratic by a 35-percentage-point difference and 30-to-44-year-olds by a 19-point difference.
Republicans were “saved” in 2018 after narrowly winning the more mature 45-to-64-year-olds by one percentage point. These middle-agers were the largest demographic group, 39% of the electorate — one point more than in the 2020 election that saw the same single-point GOP margin of victory.
Unless current voting trends change and a large chunk of 45-to-64-year-olds have a Republican conversion, the GOP may be relegated to minority status in Washington for the foreseeable future.