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Trump Makes Push for Seniors, as Coronavirus Crisis Erodes Support

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 5/1/2020 Michael C. Bender, Ken Thomas
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: America’s older voters have been trending toward Republicans for the past two decades. President Trump at a March 2 rally at Bojangles’ Coliseum in Charlotte, N.C. © brendan smialowski/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

America’s older voters have been trending toward Republicans for the past two decades. President Trump at a March 2 rally at Bojangles’ Coliseum in Charlotte, N.C.

WASHINGTON — President Trump has opened a new charm offensive aimed at appealing to America’s older voters, who polls show are souring on his re-election amid the coronavirus crisis.

Mr. Trump’s team — at the campaign, inside the White House and among Republican allies he speaks with — largely believes the president can shore up support among seniors. The focus of the race, they said, will eventually turn toward Mr. Trump as the best person to revive the economy.

“Our country could not be anything near what it is without our incredible seniors,” Mr. Trump said Thursday, declaring May 2020 “Older Americans Month.”

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“We will show them the same loyalty and love they have shown us,” he said.

Mr. Trump has trailed presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden nationally among voters 65 years and older in the four Wall Street Journal/NBC News polls this year, at times by double digits. Mr. Trump won 52% of that demographic against Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to exit polls.

America’s older voters have been trending toward Republicans for the past two decades. But Democrats said the former vice president could narrow that gap. He consistently performed well in his primary race among voters ages 65 and older, even in states such as Iowa, where he struggled. Exit polls taken Super Tuesday on March 3, when he built a formidable delegate lead against the multicandidate field, showed Mr. Biden won about half of older voters in multiple states.

The key difference in recent months, Republicans and Democrats said, has been the Trump administration’s struggle to find a foothold against the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Biden has accused Mr. Trump of an “epic mishandling of the response” to the pandemic, and political committees supporting his campaign are spending millions in battleground states on television advertisements that do the same. The president and his allies have defended the administration’s handling of the pandemic as smart and decisive, asserting that Mr. Trump’s actions saved lives and prevented a wider spread of the virus.

The Trump campaign tested the effectiveness of the Democratic ads last week, the first time the campaign has done so in either of Mr. Trump’s two races, according to a person familiar with the results. However, the data indicated that Mr. Trump’s drop was more directly related to his performance at the nightly task force briefings that he has since curtailed, according to the person. Mr. Trump’s news conferences, which often include political attacks, disputes with reporters and sometimes unreliable information about the pandemic, have drawn criticism from members of both parties.

Mr. Trump’s inner circle, including Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, campaign manager Brad Parscale and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, informed him of those results during a conference call last week, according to people familiar with the call. The president’s internal polling also has shown his numbers declining versus Mr. Biden.

Older citizens, already a politically attentive voting bloc, are the most at-risk of dying from Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. They are also closely watching the news conferences, said one Republican close to the campaign.

“I quit watching. I truly can’t stand it,” said Judy Hoffman, a 72-year-old Ohio retiree who said she had been considering supporting Mr. Trump until his handling of the pandemic. “I quit feeling like I was gaining any information. I started listening to podcasts.”

Joel Benenson, a top pollster for Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said the recent movement among older voters in polling conducted in battleground states suggests the impact the pandemic is having on the elderly.

“They don’t have little kids running around or teenagers to keep an eye on. They are sitting at home,” Mr. Benenson said. “They know, if they’ve been watching the news, they’re a vulnerable population. Those factors contribute here, and you can’t find a human being on earth … thinking that his briefings are helping him.”

In Florida, Mr. Trump trailed Mr. Biden by 10 percentage points among voters 65 and older, according to a Quinnipiac University poll taken April 16-20. The same poll showed Mr. Trump up by 1 percentage point in June 2019. In 2016, Mr. Trump won the state’s oldest voters by 17 percentage points, exit polls showed.

In Pennsylvania, Mr. Trump trailed Mr. Biden by 6 percentage points among baby boomers — people between ages 55 and 74 — according to a Fox News poll taken April 18-21. Exit polls showed he won the state’s voters 65 and older by 10 percentage points in 2016.

Mr. Trump’s dip in the polls has also alarmed Senate Republican campaign aides, who have told the president’s campaign that the gap in key states, if it continues, would be nearly impossible for them to overcome in their own races.

The campaign on Sunday will start airing a TV ad aimed at showing Mr. Trump as a strong leader during the pandemic. The seven-figure buy will run for about a week. The campaign expected to ramp up its attacks on Mr. Biden after that, a campaign official said.

The campaign has ordered red, Trump-branded face masks for supporters, according to people familiar with the matter. Campaign officials have discussed giving away the masks at events or in return for donations, one of the people said.

“We have data that shows all Americans, seniors included, can see the president’s leadership on the coronavirus,” said Tim Murtaugh, the campaign communications director. “When America begins its comeback, voters will respond.”

Meanwhile, the White House is planning a series of public events aimed at appealing to seniors, “a huge focus in the months ahead,” one official said.

On Thursday, Mr. Trump welcomed executives from senior groups and hospice organizations to the East Room of the White House. He announced the administration would send personal protective equipment, such as gowns and gloves, to nursing homes and that he would create a new commission focused on protecting nursing homes from future outbreaks.

Kellyanne Conway, the president’s White House counselor, has played a large role in the planning, officials said. It includes a coming trip to Arizona to highlight private industry efforts to manufacture protective equipment. The president won the state by 3.5 points in 2016, the smallest margin for any Republican presidential candidate in two decades.

Write to Michael C. Bender at Mike.Bender@wsj.com and Ken Thomas at ken.thomas@wsj.com

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