×

Here's why your grandma loves Trump

A supporter shows a doll depicting Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Florida.
Jewel Samad | AFP | Getty Images
A supporter shows a doll depicting Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Florida.

Donald Trump is winning the grandma/grammy/nana vote – but true to Trump form, he's not doing it the traditional way.

The two key national polls that track age groups the most (CNN/ORC and ABC News/Washington Post) show Trump has a 10-15 point lead over Hillary Clinton with voters over the age of 65.

There's one big reason why winning the older demographic is so important: turnout. The Census Bureau reported that voters 65 and older were 60 percent more likely to show up to the polls than 18-29 year-olds in 2012, and Americans 45-64 years old were 51 percent more likely to vote than millennials.

But it's the "how" that's just as interesting as the "why" right now. For decades, the conventional wisdom was that all you needed to do to win over older voters was convince them that you were the most serious about protecting Social Security and Medicare. It was Al Gore's oft-repeated "lock box" promise for Social Security funding and that resulted in his winning the elderly vote over George W. Bush in 2000. Gore won older voters by just four points while Bill Clinton grabbed that demographic by larger margins in both 1992 and 1996.

Gore's smaller margin of victory among elderly voters wasn't enough to tip the election in his favor – and perhaps that was the first clue that just talking about Social Security and Medicaid all the time wasn't going to work.

So what are the other issues that resonate with senior voters?

First, Trump put his opposition to illegal immigration at the forefront of his campaign. Illegal immigration is an issue far more important for older voters than the rest of the population. And polls show they are also much more likely to favor new laws to curb it.

While the pundits and all too many journalists seem to think Trump's immigration rhetoric is meant to lure only xenophobes, it's actually been quite effective in boosting his numbers simply among the elderly.

An extensive study release by the Brookings Institution just a month after Trump announced his candidacy showed how older Americans are much more likely to oppose all forms of increased immigration, legal or illegal.

Second, Trump isn't using language that makes him sound like he's only trying to appeal to the younger demographic. Clinton's Twitter feed and website, by contrast, look like they only have millennials in mind. Trump's lower tech campaign and less polished messaging is simply easier to follow and more on that 50-and-older wavelength.

The last aspect of Trump's unique pitch to older voters is financial in nature and it truly blazes new ground. His many attacks on Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and the Fed have seemed to some inside-the-Beltway types like the stuff of conspiracy theories or simply unjustified rage. But years and years of super low interest rates have hurt elderly retirees living off of their savings. Whether Yellen or her predecessor Ben Bernanke had any personal political reasons to push for those low rates is probably not too important to those older people really getting squeezed. What is important is that many of them are angry, and Trump's brash criticism of her taps into that passion. Usually, talking about the Fed or Fed policy is death on ice in a presidential election. But after all these years of no rewards for a lifetime of savings, Trump has hit just the right tone with older voters.

And Trump has been quick to jump on the gifts the Clinton campaign keeps giving him when it comes to older voters. When Hillary Clinton announced major changes to her estate-tax policy, it was most likely meant to get the attention of the Sanders/Elizabeth Warren voters who have long supported more taxes on the rich. But it never had the chance to positively fire up that group nearly as much as it would aggravate wealthier older voters hoping to pass on their fortunes or family businesses to their children. Boosting the top rates from 45 percent to 65 percent was a headline-grabbing change, but only in the newspapers and news shows older people watch. Trump mentioned it almost immediately on his Twitter feed, but he really didn't have to as it was one catch where the mainstream news media did it for him.

We live in a very youth-based media culture and an increasingly youth-based political atmosphere. And it makes sense that advertisers and other media types would want to focus on younger consumers who have not yet set their buying habits in stone. But when younger voters are much less likely to vote, it's foolhardy not to cater most of your campaign rhetoric for older Americans. Trump is doing just that.

Clinton? She's still working on trying to seal the deal with millennials.

Good luck with that.


Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.