Biden’s secret weapon against Trump: Older voters

John Vincent, who retired to Sturgeon Bay, Wis., with his wife, Annette Vincent, voted Republican for most of his life but is turned off by Donald Trump. CALEB ALVARADO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
John Vincent, who retired to Sturgeon Bay, Wis., with his wife, Annette Vincent, voted Republican for most of his life but is turned off by Donald Trump. CALEB ALVARADO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Summary

Senior citizens, long a reliable voting bloc for Republicans, are showing signs of turning into an election-year swing group, potentially giving President Biden an unlikely boost in his tough rematch against Donald Trump.

STURGEON BAY, Wis.—Senior citizens, long a reliable voting bloc for Republicans, are showing signs of turning into an election-year swing group, potentially giving President Biden an unlikely boost in his tough rematch against Donald Trump.

Americans ages 65 and older turn out at significantly higher rates than younger voters do, giving them outsize clout as they choose this year between the Democrat Biden, 81, and the Republican Trump, who turned 78 on Friday. Their contest looks tight in bellwether Door County, Wis., where retirees have flocked to this peninsula during the past decade, accelerated by the pandemic.

Sherry Mutchler, 74, wasn’t very active politically for much of her life, focused on raising her children and her career as an educator. But now in her retirement, she and her friends are working to deliver their Wisconsin community for Biden—and they are worried about the consequences if the president fails to win re-election.

“Democracy—we’re scared to death we’re going to lose it," said Judy Brodd, 78, who co-chairs with her husband, Mike Brodd, Indivisible Door County, a grassroots group supporting progressive candidates. “It’s not because of us, but it’s for our grandchildren and our children."

Mutchler said she is “totally obsessed" with the election, but she sometimes feels like she is “spinning my wheels and I’m doing a lot. But I feel like nothing I do changes anything." She did, however, become more hopeful after local Democratic activists helped elect a local judge this spring.

Boyd Stewart, 77, misses the days of cheaper prices at the gas pump and the grocery store, and an economy he says was much stronger under Trump when he moved to this tourist destination to enter semiretirement. But he would prefer more choices for his fellow Republicans. “I don’t love Trump, but on the other hand, I don’t think we have a choice," Stewart said.

Republican presidential candidates have carried seniors in every election since 2000, and Trump won a majority of voters ages 65 and older in 2016 and 2020. But recent polling has shown Biden in a stronger position this time.

Biden has notched about 48% of seniors in The Wall Street Journal’s national and swing-state polls this year, a number that puts him in line with his 2020 performance. The polls have shown Trump getting about 46% of that age group, down from 51% in 2020.

Biden’s standing among older voters has a few possible explanations: The president has been performing well among Americans who are closely monitoring the election, giving him an advantage with seniors who actively consume cable television and news coverage in their retirement. Some polling has shown seniors with more favorable views of Biden’s handling of the economy, possibly because they feel more insulated from the impacts of higher interest rates and inflation.

But Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, said any feeling of dramatic movement among older voters toward Biden may be overstated. The bigger change, he said, may be that older voters don’t seem to be moving toward Trump while other groups are. Beyond that point, he said, there is the broader question of the composition of the 65-and-older voting bloc in 2024.

“It’s hard to compare changes in voting habits among age groups over time, because there are different voters in the groups in each election. New voters have aged into the 65-and-older group in 2024," Grossmann said. “I do think one hypothesis for why older voters look more likely to support Biden may be that older voters are less concerned about Biden’s age."

Wisconsin has about one million seniors, accounting for nearly 20% of the state’s residents. Across seven key presidential battleground states, residents ages 65 and older account for more than 10 million people.

Door County has sided with the winner of each presidential election since 1996, making older voters a decisive group in one of the state’s top predictive counties. Demographically speaking, the county is something of an exaggerated version of Wisconsin.

Nearly one-third of the county’s residents are 65 or older. The county also has a slightly higher-than-average percentage of the population with college degrees, a group that tends to favor Biden.

Mutchler’s husband offers a window into Biden’s pathway with seniors. A supporter of Republican candidates for much of his life, the retired division manager for a paper company in the Fox Cities of Wisconsin frequently canceled out his wife’s votes for Democrats. But Keith Mutchler, who is also 74, was driven away by Trump’s rhetoric and values and decided to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and then Biden in 2020.

“It has gotten to the point where you wonder…there are things that are said and done on a national basis, ‘put people in jail,’" he said, referring to Trump’s “lock her up" mantra against his 2016 opponent. “The kinds of things that ought to just take everybody back, wait a minute, this can’t be right."

John Vincent, 70, who retired to Sturgeon Bay after living in Chicago, also voted for Republicans for most of his life but was turned off by Trump and felt the Senate should have convicted him in the impeachment process after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. “Character matters, but I also feel that truth and facts matter and I think those are being shoved aside," Vincent said.

A resort community, Door is attracting older people who came to know the area from summer visits and vacations along Lake Michigan.

Stewart visited here frequently when he worked in advertising and spent much of his career based in Texas. He now works part time in the county’s tourism industry and said he enjoys the quiet pace of life.

Stewart considers himself to be a “moderate" Trump fan and has a hard time pointing to any major achievements by Biden during his administration. He credits Trump with not entering any new foreign entanglements during his four years and worries that if Trump isn’t elected to a second term, the country is “destined for a slide."

Bob Cozby, a Republican who is 74, also relocated to Door County from Texas in 2019 after teaching computer programming. He described himself as “not that crazy about Trump" but credited the former president for having “the courage to take on the entrenched establishment up there and maybe pare things down a little bit."

Biden’s campaign has sought to mobilize seniors through outreach such as bingo and pickleball events while drawing distinctions with Trump on Medicare and Social Security. Although Trump has vowed not to cut the programs for seniors, the Biden campaign has urged the elderly to look at the former president’s record.

Former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, a Biden surrogate, appeared at events geared toward retirees earlier this month in Wisconsin, where he noted that Trump during his time in the White House proposed cuts to Medicare and Social Security in his budget plans.

Those messages aim to convince voters like Jeff Johnson, 65, the president of a garbage and recycling company based in Sister Bay, a resort community in the northern part of the peninsula.

Johnson, an independent who voted for Trump in 2016, said in an interview at an outdoor beer garden in Sister Bay that he remains undecided in the election—and unhappy with his options. He said he could no longer vote for Trump but gave Biden only average marks: “No complaints, no roses," Johnson said of the president.

“So many things can change between now and Election Day. That’s why I’m not indicating anything—when it’s time to walk into the booth, there could be a lot of things different in the world," he said.

Write to Ken Thomas at ken.thomas@wsj.com and Dante Chinni at dante.chinni@wsj.com

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