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The Memo: Biden seeks to peel older voters from Trump

Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  New DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad MORE unleashed new ads Monday making the case that President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE’s handling of the coronavirus has hurt older voters most of all.

The $14.5 million ad buy is the most forceful example yet of the Biden campaign’s belief that seniors can be peeled away from Trump.

If the presumptive Democratic nominee is right, it will have huge ramifications for November’s election.

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Older voters have leaned heavily Republican for years. But some recent opinion polls have suggested Biden is much more competitive this year.

His campaign’s bet is that the fear many seniors have about COVID-19 has led to a disenchantment with Trump — and could lead to them casting a ballot for the Democrat in November.

“A core part of Trump’s strength has always been with older voters, and it is clear that Biden is much stronger than anybody would have expected,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s presidential campaign manager in 2004. “In some polls, he is actually leading with that group.”

If Biden were able to replicate anything like that performance in November, it would likely spell doom for Trump — not least because older Americans are among the most reliable when it comes to actually turning up to cast their ballots.

Trump carried voters aged 65 and older by 7 points over Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonValadao unseats Cox in election rematch Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Federal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we're ready to get back to work MORE in 2016, according to exit polls. In 2008 and 2012, the Republican presidential nominees — John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Memo: GOP mulls its future after Trump Juan Williams: Obama's dire warnings about right-wing media Democrats' squabbling vindicates Biden non-campaign MORE and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Memo: GOP mulls its future after Trump Biden teams to meet with Trump administration agencies Paul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' MORE, respectively — won the same demographic over President Obama by 8 points and 12 points respectively.

In all three of those elections, voters 65 and older delivered almost 1 in 6 of all votes cast.

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But two recent polls, from CBS News and Fox News, have shown a dead heat in the contest for older voters this year. The CBS News poll had Biden leading Trump by 1 point with the over-65s, while the Fox poll had a 1-point margin in the opposite direction. Both results were well within the margin of error.

In the main ad released by the Biden campaign Monday, a Wisconsin resident, Jessica, talks about the loss of her grandmother, Susana Martinez, to COVID-19.

“The president made a huge mistake in downplaying this virus. There was a lack of leadership, a lack of responsibility and a lack of resources,” Jessica says in the ad. ”I feel like my grandmother didn’t matter.”

The ad will also be broadcast in a Spanish language version. Older voters are especially vital in some crucial swing states with large Latino populations, such as Florida and Arizona. People over the age of 65 cast 21 percent of all votes in Florida and 25 percent of all votes in Arizona in 2016, exit polls indicate. Nationwide, the figure was 16 percent.

Trump has faced criticism for his response to the pandemic, both in terms of tone and substance. The United States has failed to flatten the curve of new infections, unlike many other nations. He also downplayed the threat in its early stages and has several times suggested COVID-19 will “disappear.”

There has been a tonal shift recently, with the president resuming regular White House briefings on the pandemic, tweeting a photo of himself wearing a mask for the first time and last week predicting the COVID-19 crisis will “get worse before it gets better.”

His campaign makes a vigorous defense of his actions, too.  

“Throughout this pandemic, President Trump has allocated tremendous resources to protecting nursing home residents against COVID, fast-tracked vaccine development, and focused on rebuilding a strong economy that will allow seniors to retire comfortably,” a Trump campaign spokesperson, Samantha Zager, told The Hill via email. 

“Joe Biden has shamelessly attempted to use COVID to instill fear and advance a socialist agenda that would be devastating to seniors, destroying their retirement plans and undermining Social Security and Medicare as we know them,” Zager added.

But some independent experts believe the rhetorical damage may already have been done for Trump.

“The coronavirus is a disease that hurts the old more than anyone else, so the more the president’s policies are associated with a failure to control the pandemic, it is older voters who are most at risk,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “It is not a big surprise if they are going to be looking elsewhere” as they think about how to cast their votes.

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Some Republicans are willing to acknowledge that Trump has been hurt politically by the pandemic, and they understand why the topic resonates at a visceral level with seniors.

But they also caution that there are other issues that could help the president with older voters. 

Some point to the violence that has taken place around protests about racial injustice. Even though polls indicate significant support for the overall goals of the protesters, images of violence or disorder could disconcert seniors.

“The president has not taken the reins of COVID as much as some people would like. But I think Biden has some pretty big vulnerabilities,” said GOP strategist John Feehery, who is also a columnist for The Hill. “He is head of a party that has gone sharply to the left.”

Feehery added: “The more, culturally, he moves to the left, the more he is in danger of losing older voters. That’s not just ‘law and order’ but also not standing for the flag or not having a proper respect for American history.”

The Trump campaign is making its own aggressive efforts to keep older voters in the Republican fold. 

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Last week, it released an ad titled “Break In,” which depicted an older woman sitting alone at home, unable to reach the police, as a shadowy figure forces his way into her home. “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” reads an on-screen slogan.

One question, however, is whether Biden, a familiar and center-left figure, can be successfully tied to far more radical forces. The other is whether those arguments can gain traction while COVID-19 is the nation's central focus.

In the recent Fox News poll, even voters 65 and over disapproved of Trump’s response to the coronavirus, 51 percent to 48 percent. Forty-four percent strongly disapproved.

Those are dangerous numbers for the president.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.