For years, Republicans and Mr. Trump have relied on older Americans, the country’s largest voting bloc, to offset a huge advantage Democrats enjoy with younger voters. In critical states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida, all of which have large older populations, Mr. Trump’s advantage with older voters has been essential to his political success; in 2016, he won voters over the age of 65 by seven percentage points, according to national exit poll data.
But seniors are also the most vulnerable to the global pandemic, and the campaign’s internal polls, people familiar with the numbers said, show Mr. Trump’s support among voters over the age of 65 softening to a concerning degree, as he pushes to reopen the country’s economy at the expense of stopping a virus that puts them at the greatest risk.
A recent Morning Consult poll found that Mr. Trump’s approval rating on the handling of the coronavirus was lower with seniors than with any other group other than young voters. And Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee, in recent polls held a 10-point advantage over Mr. Trump among voters who are 65 and older. A poll commissioned by the campaign showed a similar double-digit gap.
The falloff in support comes as Mr. Trump has grown increasingly anxious about his re-election prospects, with a series of national surveys, as well as internal polling, showing him trailing in key states. The president has all but moved on from a focus on controlling the pandemic and is now pushing his agenda to restore the country, and the economy, to a place that will lift his campaign.
“Trump has suffered a double whammy with seniors from the coronavirus crisis, both in terms of a dislike for his personal demeanor and disapproval of his policy priorities,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic strategist. “If there’s a durable change with older voters, it could well cost Trump the election.”
The demographic shift is fairly new, and officials said they attributed it at least in part to Mr. Trump’s coronavirus briefings, at which he often dispensed conflicting, misleading and sometimes dangerous information that caused alarm among a vulnerable population. At the same point in the race four years ago, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, trailed Mr. Trump by five points with the same group.
Among the aides who have warned the president of a softening with older voters is Kellyanne Conway, his 2016 campaign manager and a senior adviser, people familiar with the discussions said. White House officials aware of the problem have started to stage events and initiatives designed to highlight work the administration has done that will appeal to seniors.
Standing in the ornate East Room at the White House earlier this month, for instance, Mr. Trump surrounded himself with health officials as he signed a proclamation declaring May to be “Older Americans Month.”
“The virus poses the greatest risk to older Americans,” Mr. Trump said, while crediting his administration for protecting seniors by halting unnecessary visits to nursing homes nationwide and expanding access to telehealth for Medicare beneficiaries.
In recent weeks, aides have also discussed investigations into nursing homes where there have been large numbers of coronavirus-related deaths, and Vice President Mike Pence has taken cameras along as he personally delivered protective equipment to a nursing home.
But the administration has also hampered some of its own efforts to appeal to older voters. Mr. Trump recently rejected an expanded enrollment period for the newly uninsured, for instance.
Ms. Conway declined to discuss her conversations with Mr. Trump about seniors, but she noted that he had promised not to touch safety-net programs that affect them. “In five years since he announced his candidacy, President Trump has been unwavering in his commitment to not touch Social Security,” Ms. Conway said.
Mr. Trump, however, at various times has said he would be open to cutting safety-net programs, only to have aides walk back those comments after the fact. “At the right time, we will take a look at that,” Mr. Trump said in January of cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — a stance that Biden campaign officials said they planned to highlight in the coming months.
The Biden team also noted that a second Morning Consult poll released this past week showed that 46 percent of voters said they trusted Mr. Biden to protect Medicare and Social Security, compared with 41 percent for Mr. Trump.
Trump campaign officials downplayed any long-term electoral concerns. Older voters, they said, have long bristled at Mr. Trump’s acerbic personal demeanor, which was on display for hours every day during briefings that the president believed were beneficial to him, but that aides and Republican allies eventually persuaded him to phase out.
In the past, however, support from older voters would return when they were reminded of Mr. Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration and his vow to protect Social Security and other safety-net programs, policy positions they often agreed with, officials said.
Their hope, they said, is that support from older voters will return now that Mr. Trump has phased out his self-congratulatory version of a fireside chat, where he excoriated reporters and Democrats and at one point suggested that disinfectants could potentially be used to treat coronavirus patients.
In Mr. Biden, however, Mr. Trump is also competing against a candidate whom many older voters view as an appealing alternative to Mr. Trump in a way that they never viewed Mrs. Clinton in 2016, strategists in both parties said. Mr. Biden’s campaign officials credit his appeal with older voters to their view of him as a moderate, politically, and as a compassionate person who has suffered his own string of personal tragedies.
Biden officials said that positive sense among seniors is combined with a real fear that there will be a second wave of Covid-19 outbreak and that the coronavirus pandemic threatened their lives.
Keeping Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump polling even among older voters — in other words, simply cutting into Mr. Trump’s margin — could potentially be enough to make a critical difference in what is expected to be a tight race, Biden officials said.
“It’s up to the Trump campaign whether this is a temporary trend line with these voters, or not,” said Kevin Madden, who was an adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “They have to go out there and restore confidence with these voters.”
Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, dismissed any problem with older voters as a “false narrative being pushed by the left.”
Mr. Parscale contended that the campaign’s polls show strong support for Mr. Trump from seniors because they “care about who can restore the economy, who will stand up to China, who will put America first in every decision. They care about looking after veterans and protecting Social Security and Medicare.”
Trump campaign officials said they were planning to begin attacks on Mr. Biden on television very soon. But the kind of ads that the campaign sometimes favors — quick, flashy cuts with newspaper headlines mixed in — have turned off older voters in past focus groups by Democrats. Voters in those sessions wanted more context to explain the images they were seeing, they said.
Strategists aligned with Mr. Trump’s campaign are also trying to signal that some form of by-mail voting is acceptable to them, despite the reservations the president has expressed about the practice — an acknowledgment that mail voting makes it easier for seniors to participate.
Some Republican state party chairs, meanwhile, said they had ramped up the number of phone calls to voters over the past month, while most of the country has remained locked down in their homes, in part to reassure older voters about Mr. Trump’s leadership.
“The message to them is we want to continue to build a positive and bright future to America, that the hopeful optimism they grew up with is what we should leave for future generations,” said James Dickey, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, who said the party had completed over 130,000 voter-contact phone calls in April.
Mr. Dickey said he was not worried about any slippage with older voters, because there has yet to be a head-to-head comparison between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. “When the president has a chance to debate him, I’m confident the contrast will be stark,” Mr. Dickey said.
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