Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election by a margin that, though wider than originally feared, was narrower than feels comfortable in a country on whose stability the world depends. One reason is the rise of the American gerontocracy.
An uninformed reading of older voters’ preferences would be that Joe Biden won the presidency because, at 78, he’s four years older than the incumbent. That’s wrong. Yes, the aging of the American voter helps explain our collective tolerance for aging leaders—come March, we’ll have an 80-year-old House speaker and a 79-year-old Senate Republican leader. But this isn’t simply a matter of elderly voters, given a choice between two septuagenarian candidates for president, automatically choosing the older one. In 2020, they stuck with Trump.
Before the election, you might have seen a story or two indicating that Trump’s indifference to the Covid-19 pandemic was killing him with elderly voters. (I wrote one myself.) In the end, though, the harm appears to have been slight, shrinking Trump’s victory margin among voters age 65 and older from seven percentage points to five, according to Edison Research exit polls. Biden picked up two percentage points over Hillary Clinton with this cohort, yet Trump still won 52 percent of it, just as he did in 2016.
While Trump’s mishandling of the Covid crisis mattered less to elderly voters than expected, the impact of the elderly vote itself mattered more—not because of whom the duffers voted for, but because so many more duffers voted than in years past.
Before proceeding, let me apply a few caveats. Covid-19 and changing telephone habits made polling famously difficult in 2020, and Edison’s exit polls have attracted criticism over the years for lowballing how old (and white) the electorate is. Many experts prefer the AP Fox exit poll. (Yes, Virginia, in this one highly circumscribed respect, Fox may be a better news source than CNN.) But AP Fox goes back only to 2018.
More reliable information based on actual votes cast will be available next year, and very possibly it will make gibberish of the analysis that follows. For the moment, though, Edison Research’s exit polls constitute the best available data set to assess the American gerontocracy’s growth over time. With that in mind, let’s proceed.
Nobody can dispute that an awful lot of people—about 65 percent of all eligible voters—cast ballots on November 3. Officially, it was the biggest turnout since the turn of the twentieth century. Unofficially, it was bigger even than that. Michael Podhorzer, assistant to the president for strategic research at the AFL-CIO, points out that the pool of eligible voters in 1900 was disgracefully small, excluding half the U.S. population (women) plus most people of color. Factor in these disenfranchised groups, Podhorzer says, and 2020 boasted “the highest turnout EVER, 10 points higher than the average presidential turnout since the Voting Rights Act.” This election was a national emergency, and turnout demonstrated citizens understood that.
Still, the results were a bit of a disappointment. Many people expected that high turnout, and especially high turnout among young voters, would favor the Democrats, and, of course, it did, in the sense that Biden won. But Biden didn’t win by as large a margin as Democrats hoped, and ballooning turnout didn’t win Democrats back the Senate. That’s because turnout for Republican constituencies, including the elderly, was really high, too. The elderly’s proportion of votes cast was higher than ever before, simply because the Baby Boom is entering old age.
It’s easy to lose sight of the aging-voters story because turnout among young voters really does seem to have increased a great deal in 2020. According to the Tufts Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, somewhere between 52 percent and 55 percent of all eligible voters aged 18 to 29 voted. That’s an increase over 2016 of 10 or 11 percentage points. Give young people, who traditionally have a terrible record on turnout, a gold star for Most Improved.
But 52–55 percent turnout is still peanuts compared to this year’s 65 percent turnout among the population at large, driven at least in part by even higher turnout among elderly voters. The true age-demographic story of 2020 wasn’t that young people flocked to the polls in higher proportions than ever before. It was that this youthquake had no discernible impact on the makeup of the American electorate, according to Edison Research’s exit polls, because there were so goddamned many old people.
According to Edison Research Executive Vice President Rob Farbman, the age group that in 2020 most increased its share of votes cast was the elderly (65 and older), which expanded from a 20 percent share in 2016 to a 22 percent share in 2020. Those two percentage points represent an increase in relative voter strength of 10 percent. By contrast, 18-24-year-olds had the same 9 percent share of votes cast as in 2016, and 25-29 year-olds the same 7 percent.* (All other groups either kept the same share or lost one or two percentage points, with the exception of the 30–39 cohort, which rose from 15 to 16 percent.)
The elderly’s 22 percent of votes cast—assuming that this figure holds up in future data—represents a historic jump in gerontological clout. For the past quarter-century, Edison Research’s exit polls put the 65-and-over cohort pretty consistently at 16 percent of all votes cast in presidential elections (excepting 2000, when it dipped to 14 percent). Indeed, Edison Research initially assigned the elderly 16 percent of all votes cast in 2016, before it corrected that figure to 20 percent. Edison has not similarly massaged its data prior to 2016, and it has no plans to do so, according to Farbman. That leaves us in the dark about exactly how and when the elderly experienced their Great Leap Forward in the voting pool.
As I’ve taken care to note, more reliable age-demographic percentages based on actual votes cast are not yet available for 2020. But the historic data suggests that, prior to 2020, there was no Great Leap Forward but rather the gradual rise that you’d expect as Boomers started trading their coonskin Davy Crockett caps for adult Depends diapers. The data based on actual votes cast also suggests that the elderly share of votes cast this year probably exceeded 25 percent (because it was already 24.9 percent in 2016).
No matter how you measure it, the elderly are still very much in charge of American politics. Advertisers prize twentysomethings more highly than grandma and grandpa, and online news sites prize the Gen Z demographic more highly still. But political strategists care more about the old folks. They can’t afford not to, and that won’t change anytime soon.
* An earlier version of this article misstated the share of votes cast by voters aged 18-29 in 2016 and 2020.