“White,” “male” and “old” are three abiding stereotypes of Donald Trump’s political base.
The first two are indisputable.
But the third can be overstated. And in some parts of the country, it’s simply not true.
Take the battleground state of Wisconsin, where the president has had negative job ratings from seniors since shortly after taking office.
Trump’s “generational” base in Wisconsin is not voters in their 60s and 70s but voters in their 40s and 50s, polling shows.
The Trump-Biden race in this state has followed a distinctive age pattern since 2019, with Biden leading among the youngest (under 40) and oldest (60 and over) and Trump leading among the middle-aged (40-59).
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This pattern is pronounced under Trump, but it’s not new in Wisconsin politics.
“We’ve pretty consistently seen that people born in the 1960s and 70s are more Republican-leaning” than other voters, said Marquette Law School pollster Charles Franklin, who has conducted more than 60 surveys in the state over the past 8½ years.
Most of these voters, now in their 40s and 50s, belong to Generation X — those post-Baby Boom Americans born between the mid-60s and 1980, many of whom came of age politically during or soon after the Reagan presidency.
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In Wisconsin, these voters are far more pro-Trump than people in their 60s and older, who give the president a 42% approval rating since May and 41% approval for handling the coronavirus outbreak.
But Trump’s deficit with “seniors” here is not the result of older voters abandoning the president in the pandemic — the so-called “senior slide” that has commanded a lot of media attention this summer.
In fact, there’s no evidence so far in Marquette’s polling that seniors are driving the decline in the president’s overall numbers in Wisconsin, where he now trails Democrat Joe Biden by high single-digits.
The president’s “senior problem” is much more longstanding here. After splitting the senior vote with Hillary Clinton in 2016 (according to the Wisconsin exit poll), he has struggled with these voters since.
The numbers are remarkably consistent in Marquette’s polling. Trump’s net approval rating (the share of voters who approve minus the share who disapprove) among voters 60 and over averaged minus-10 in 2017-18; minus-8 in 2019; minus-8 in 2020; and was minus-8 in Marquette’s last poll, taken in mid-June.
By contrast, Trump’s approval ratings among voters in their 50s have climbed from plus-1 in 2017-18, to plus-10 in 2019 and plus-13 in 2020.
“It has certainly long been true in Wisconsin that senior citizens are not the easiest group for Republicans to get,” said Brad Todd, a GOP consultant with experience in statewide campaigns here. “Trump, like many Republicans, breaks even or loses a little bit among seniors, but then crushes it with the 40 and 50-year-olds,” he said.
Todd sees these middle-aged voters as people “at the peak of their taxpaying careers, who also tend to be very focused on sending kids out in the world, so cultural things matter in a different way than they might to a 20-year-old.”
This age group “is our bread and butter,” said GOP pollster Gene Ulm, who surveys frequently in Wisconsin.
(This demographic has provided the Wisconsin GOP with most of its key political figures in recent years, including former Gov. Scott Walker, former House Speaker Paul Ryan, former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and legislative leaders Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald).
Democratic pollster Paul Maslin says there are also generational reasons for this pattern.
“Almost every boomer is now over 60 years old,” said Maslin, meaning they came of age politically in the 1960s amid an unpopular war, huge cultural change and the ill-fated presidency of Republican Richard Nixon.
“As opposed to somebody in their 50s who came of age with Reagan, which in Wisconsin morphed into (former governor) Tommy Thompson,” said Maslin, citing two popular GOP figures.
Age is far from the biggest demographic fault line in this and other recent elections. Gender, education and race are all bigger divides. For example, among voters 60 and over in Wisconsin, there is a big gap between older men, who favor Trump by a few points, and older women, who favor Biden by 20.
But the numbers below, taken from Marquette’s combined 2020 polling, underscore how age figures into the 2020 equation. These age gaps are not trivial:
There are two ways that pollsters and political scientists interpret these patterns. One is how age itself shapes voters — the effect of being young, middle-aged or older on someone’s political leanings, whether you’re a college student or taxpayer and parent, or a senior citizen reliant on Medicare and Social Security.
The other is generational — how people are shaped by events happening at the time they begin voting and paying attention to politics, such as the Depression and World War II, or the 1960s, or the Reagan years.
“People who come of age in more pro-Republican times, typically under a popular Republican president, emerge from that with a strong partisan tilt in a Republican direction — and vice versa for Democrats,” Franklin said.
To capture the generational pattern in Wisconsin, Franklin examined the partisan leanings of voters by their year of birth, drawing on the more than 50,000 interviews Marquette has done since it started polling in 2012.
The pattern could not be much clearer.
People born before 1940 are pretty balanced between Democrats and Republicans. People born in the years thereafter are increasingly Democratic, a trend that peaks with boomers born in the early 1950s.
Then the trend reverses. People born in the mid-50s still lean Democratic but less so. Those born in the late 50s are evenly divided. And people born in the 60s are increasingly Republican, a trend that peaks around the end of the decade, when the partisan line starts moving back in a Democratic direction.
The result is the age dynamic we see in Wisconsin in the Trump-Biden race: the most Democratic clusters are people now in their mid-60s to early 70s and people under 35. The most Republican are people between 40 and 60.
One thing this doesn’t explain is why seniors in Wisconsin appear to be less pro-Trump than seniors nationally. In some national surveys, voters over 60 or 65 remain Trump’s best age group. Trump won this group nationally in 2016, according to the exit polls and other post-election studies. And they were his single best age group nationally, according to some election studies. In national polling by both Gallup and Pew, voters 65 and older still give him his highest job ratings of any age group.
But Wisconsin, which Trump narrowly carried in 2016, is a different story. Seniors weren’t Trump’s best age group in Marquette’s 2016 polling or in the 2016 Wisconsin exit poll. They have consistently given the president negative ratings and favored Biden over Trump. Voters in their 60s are the most Democratic age group in Wisconsin after voters under 30, according to Marquette’s polling.
Meanwhile, voters in their 40s and 50s have grown significantly more Republican in recent years, Franklin’s data shows.
The influence of age does appear to differ across regions of the country. In recent battleground polling by the New York Times, Trump performed his worst among seniors in the Great Lakes states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, but significantly better among seniors in Arizona, Florida and North Carolina.
“It’s an upper Midwest thing,” said Todd, the GOP strategist. “You find a lot of senior citizens who still identify as Democrats and they voted for Obama twice. It’s certainly possible in this election many of those people will, in the end, vote Republican, but Joe Biden generationally is in the right spot for some of those voters.”
The overall polling in Wisconsin is unquestionably grim for Trump at the moment.
He has to hope the political climate improves for him this fall. And he has to hope that his middle-aged base in Wisconsin is strong enough to offset his big deficits with younger voters and current struggles with older voters.
Craig Gilbert has covered every presidential campaign since 1988 and chronicled Wisconsin’s role as a swing state at the center of the nation’s political divide. He has written widely about polarization and voting trends and won distinction for his data-driven analysis. Gilbert has served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Lubar Fellow at Marquette Law School and a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where he studied public opinion, survey research, voting behavior and statistics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @WisVoter.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin voters are split among age lines between Trump and Biden