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Opinion | Disenchanted Seniors for Biden

The ad opens with amateur footage of an older, white-haired woman, smiling and chatting with the toddler snuggled in her lap. In a voice-over, a younger woman reminisces about how her grandmother’s home had always been “the safe place.”

Then came the coronavirus.

“It was difficult to comprehend how quickly everything kind of spiraled downwards,” says the woman, Jessica, from Greenfield, Wis., now shown on camera. Almost as soon as the family realized that her grandmother, Susana Martinez, was sick with Covid-19, she was gone.

“The president made a huge mistake in downplaying this virus,” says Jessica, lamenting his lack of leadership and his unwillingness to take responsibility and devote appropriate resources to address the crisis.

“It felt like our elderly have not been a priority for this administration — that they don’t matter,” she says. “And I feel like my grandmother didn’t matter.”

Ouch. This 60-second TV spot was rolled out last week by Joe Biden’s presidential campaign “to highlight the pandemic’s impact on older Americans and their families,” per the announcement. Part of a $14.5 million media buy for the final week of July, the ad was scheduled to receive prominent play on “shows on daytime television that have high viewership among older Americans.” In the Latino-rich states of Florida and Arizona, a Spanish-language version also ran.

The campaign released shorter digital ads as well, stressing to seniors that Mr. Biden cares about their health, independence and “dignity.” One six-second Facebook ad — featuring a dancing grandma — cites Mr. Biden’s efforts to reduce prescription drug costs, while another touts his support for lowering the eligibility age for Medicare to 60. The videos include much arm squeezing, hugging and multiple shots of Mr. Biden listening intently to voters of a mature vintage, presumably all recorded prepandemic.

With fewer than 100 days until the election, the battle for America’s most reliable voting block is heating up. Beset by crises, President Trump is at risk of losing older voters, perhaps badly. Team Biden is eager to present these voters with a more comforting alternative.

Older Americans vote. In large numbers. Consistently. Regardless of whether the specific contenders make their hearts go pitter-patter. Seniors are a political force who candidates neglect — or, worse, alienate — at their peril.

In recent decades, older voters have tilted conservative. “No Democrat has won or broken even with seniors in two decades, since Al Gore in 2000 devoted much of his general-election campaign to warning that Republicans would cut popular programs like Social Security and Medicare,” The Times recently noted.

This was certainly the case in 2016, when Mr. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 13 percentage points among voters 65 and up, according to data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study. Along with his xenophobic scaremongering and culture-war revanchism, the Donald Trump of 2016 explicitly promised older voters that he would protect Social Security and Medicare. He assured them that he had their backs.

Four years on, many seniors aren’t feeling all that reassured and are wondering if maybe the president has turned his back on them. A growing pile of polls show this crucial cohort slipping from his grasp.

A June survey by The Times and Siena College found Mr. Biden running basically even with Mr. Trump nationally among voters 65 and older. That same month, surveys by The Times and Siena of voters in six key battleground states — Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania — showed Mr. Biden with a six-point advantage among seniors. Last month, NBC News noted that an average of current polls showed the 65-and-older crowd favoring Mr. Biden by 15 points.

This shift in affection is being driven by many factors, from Mr. Trump’s crassness to his heavy-handed response to the protests against racial injustice. But there’s no question that his epic mishandling of the coronavirus has cost him with seniors, who face an elevated risk of dying from Covid-19.

In the midst of all the turmoil, Mr. Biden’s team believes that he has what it takes to win over older voters. While Mr. Trump throws Twitter tantrums and wallows in self-pity, Mr. Biden is painting himself as the candidate of steadiness and reassurance. He speaks the language of loss and grief with an authenticity born of too much personal experience. He oozes empathy.

This may not impress fiery young voters all that much. But older Americans seem increasingly open to Mr. Biden’s low-key charms and ability to feel their pain.

“The last time I saw my grandmother, we weren’t going to be allowed in the hospital,” Jessica recounts toward the end of the new Biden ad. Voice cracking, she says the family gathered via video to say a prayer and say goodbye. “But the fact that she was alone — it just breaks my heart.”

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