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Older Voters Swing Toward Biden In Polls Amid Pandemic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One key to President Trump's success at the ballot box in 2016 was his success in winning older voters. Well, he may have to work hard to repeat that this year. Democrat Joe Biden currently has a lead averaging 10 points among seniors in recent polls. Now, it is far too early for predictions, but even a small shift could make the difference in battleground states, including those with large numbers of retirees, such as Florida and Arizona. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: There is something important to know, first and foremost, about older voters. They show up at the polls. They vote at a higher rate than any other age group, election after election. For that reason, candidates pay attention to them. Here's another thing. The issues that are most important to these voters also don't change a lot.

SUSAN MCMANUS: Certainly, health care and the economy are always near the top.

GONYEA: That's Susan McManus of the University of South Florida. She's been watching elections in her state for more than 30 years. Now the pandemic has thrown the issues of health and the economy into high relief. McManus says that's potentially bad for Trump with the older voters he was counting on.

MCMANUS: The fact that the uncertainty about the health care and the economy - sort of a double whammy - is very unsettling and would obviously make them take a look at a different candidate. And I think that's what's happening.

GONYEA: In 2016, according to exit polling, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by seven points with voters 65 years old and up. Now polls show him trailing Biden by at least that much with those voters. McManus says this would be a tough time for any leader, but she says Trump only added to the uncertainty with his performances at all those long, televised news briefings.

Today, the president held a meeting at the White House focusing on older Americans and the coronavirus. Prior to the event, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany was asked if this was a reaction to slumping support from such voters. She responded, no, not in the slightest, adding, quote, "seniors are a vulnerable population. They have been hit by this hard, so the president wants to show the steps this administration has been taking to protect seniors."

Watching all of this closely is the American Association of Retired Persons. Nancy LeaMond is the group's executive vice president.

NANCY LEAMOND: Older voters are going to be up for grabs. They're not a monolith. They don't all think the same way. And they are going to vote.

GONYEA: The AARP boasts a membership of almost 40 million people, but it does not endorse candidates. LeaMond would not critique the president's handling of the pandemic but said this about her group's members.

LEAMOND: And what I will say is they are very focused on hearing from health professionals, whether it's at the national level, the state level or the local level.

GONYEA: LeaMond did say seniors are asking what their options will be for the actual process of casting their ballot.

LEAMOND: We're hearing from members a lot about the question of voting by mail. Will they have to vote in person, given concerns about the virus?

GONYEA: The election is just over six months away. Some Democrats have been concerned that Joe Biden may not be able to excite younger voters in the party's base. But if he can perform better with older voters, it could give Biden more potential paths to victory.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR AND 9 THEORY'S "CHAMELEON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.