An unexpected generational realignment is scrambling the 2024 election

A version of this story appeared in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.

A truism of American politics is that older voters prefer the Republican and younger voters prefer the Democrat.

That’s what happened in 2020, when Democrat Joe Biden won voters under 50 and Republican Donald Trump won voters over 50, according to exit polls. Biden’s margin among younger voters — he got 65% of voters ages 18-24 — helped him overcome the fact that Trump got 52% of older voters, who accounted for more than half the electorate.

In 2016, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College even though she got more votes than him, but the pattern of younger voters supporting the Democrat held. Clinton got more votes among voters ages 18-44, and Trump got more votes among voters ages 45 and older, according to exit polls.

In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney lost the election, but he did better than Democrat Barack Obama among voters 45 and older.

Voters under 30 haven’t preferred the Republican since 1988, when George H.W. Bush defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis in a landslide. Voters over the age of 65 haven’t preferred the Democrat since 2000, when Al Gore lost the election despite getting more votes than Republican George W. Bush.

But the old rules don’t seem to apply in this year’s presidential election, where both candidates are old men and their fitness to serve is a top issue. Older voters are gravitating to Biden, and younger voters are taking a look at Trump.

A new Marist poll in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, for instance, showed a tight race overall with Trump at 47% and Biden at 45%, a within-the-margin-of-error difference.

Trump is making inroads with voters of color and is nearly even with Biden among voters under 45 in that poll. But older voters have gone in the opposite direction, and instead of favoring Trump, are nearly split in the Marist poll.

It’s a trend that extends to other states. In a nationwide Quinnipiac University poll released in May, Biden and Trump split younger voters, but Biden has an edge among voters 65 and older.

Not every poll shows the same level of shift, but the general movement among both younger and older voters is a departure from past results.

Biden is now leaning into questions about his age that have dogged his reelection campaign and worry voters in opinion polls.

“Joe isn’t one of the most effective presidents of our lives in spite of his age, but because of it,” first lady Jill Biden said at a campaign stop in Wisconsin this week, part of a three-day swing designed to boost his support among older voters.

Older voters are essentially Biden’s and Trump’s peers. Both men were born in the 1940s.

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny and Eric Bradner note that older voters were “alive in the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War, a period Biden has attempted to tap into as he casts Trump as a threat to democracy.”

They also write that “in 2024, baby boomers now make up a wide majority of the senior vote for the first time — an enticing demographic shift the Biden campaign is seizing upon in Michigan and across the country.”

In Michigan, Zeleny and Bradner talked to Linda Van Werden, a retired real estate agent who only got active in politics after Trump’s 2016 victory.

“I never thought I’d be one of those people holding up a political sign or being involved, but I can’t sit back anymore and watch this happen,” she said.

Despite the shift of older voters in the direction of Biden (and younger voters away from him), I was surprised to see older voters still have reservations about Biden’s age. In a February New York Times/Siena College poll, nearly three-quarters of registered voters ages 65 and older said Biden was too old to be effective as president compared with less than half who said the same about Trump. Those figures tracked with the population at large.

CNN’s Ronald Brownstein noted last year that older voters were more likely to approve of Biden’s job performance and argued that some of his policy wins, like pushing for lowering drug costs in Medicare, appeal directly to seniors.

Whatever the reason, if Biden is to overcome questions about his age to keep his job, it will be with help from people his own age.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at