In the run up to the 2020 presidential election, the polls showed something strange: Joe Biden was doing much better than expected among voters 65 and older. Some polls showed him ahead by 10 points or more.
It was a bit hard to explain and believe. Yes, the pandemic affected the elderly the most. Yes, Mr. Biden was old too. Yes, the baby boomer generation was aging in the 65+ age group, replacing somewhat more conservative voters. But could Biden really be winning over older voters? When the final overall results were much better for Donald J. Trump than the polls suggested, he seemed to offer an obvious answer: no.
Three years later, I wonder if Biden’s strength among older voters was more than it seemed. She maybe she didn’t win the older voters by 10 points, but maybe she actually came close to winning the older voters or completely.
Our own Times/Siena polls, for example, they were very accurate. They did not overestimate the Democrats. And yet, Times/Siena polls found the generic congressional ticket to be even among seniors, with 45 percent support for each party. On a question about how they voted in the 2020 presidential election, polls still found Biden ahead of Trump, 53 percent to 47 percent, among older voters.
Could Mr. Biden really have done so well? Unfortunately, it is very difficult to be sure. The various post-election studies, such as exit polls or data from the Democratic firm Catalist, still show that the Republicans will win the group in 2022. Worse, the harsh election results do not offer much additional evidence to help clarify the matter. Voters are not as segregated by age as they are by race or education, making it difficult to find additional evidence in the voting results to confirm whether the trends evident in the polls are ultimately confirmed on Election Day.
But there’s one additional data point worth considering: our Wisconsin high-incentive mail study. As you may remember, we promised Wisconsin voters up to $25 in an effort to reach the kind of people who don’t often participate in political polls. In the end, it achieved a response rate of over 20 percent (by contrast, only about 1 percent of our phone call attempts result in a full interview in a typical survey). The response rate among older Wisconsinites appeared to be much, much higher.
Democrats fared better among older voters in the Wisconsin mail-in poll than in any other major election study. The mail-in poll found Democrat Mandela Barnes leading Republican Sen. Ron Johnson 52 to 40 among older registered voters. By comparison, the Times/Siena concurrent poll, using our traditional methods of live interviews, found Barnes leading 46 to 43 among that group, while the other election surveys were even further to the right. He exit polls found Johnson ahead by seven points with that group, while AP/VoteCast found Johnson up by four points.
The findings were equally extreme when voters were asked to recall how they voted in the 2020 presidential election. In the high-incentive mail survey, voters age 67 and older in 2022 (meaning 65+ in 2020) they said they backed Biden 55-38 over Trump. By contrast, the Times/Siena poll found Biden ahead, 48-43, in the same group. He exit polls and Vote Cast both data found that Trump won seniors by a comfortable margin in 2020.
To reiterate: there isn’t much additional evidence to help substantiate these very different versions of what happened among older voters. But the Wisconsin mail survey is intriguing evidence. It has renewed my curiosity about the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Democrats are doing better among older voters than is commonly thought.
If they are, it would help make sense of the party’s new strength in special elections, which tend to have very old constituencies, and perhaps in last November’s midterm elections as well.