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Old habits die hard - but a shift could be deciding factor at the ballot box

Decision 2020

Older voters have traditionally supported the conservative side of politics over Labor in greater numbers at both state and federal levels but that mood may be changing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Dennis Atkins

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Here are five seats to add to those to watch in the current Queensland election: Clayfield, Bundaberg, Pumicestone, Burleigh and Hervey Bay.

These seats are all held by the LNP and range from the very close (Pumicestone on 0.8 per cent) to the ostensibly safe (Hervey Bay with 9.1 per cent of electoral comfort).

The other thing that binds these seats in one group is the number of older electors, aged 65 or more – they all have an above-average proportion of those in this age group.

Older voters have supported the conservative side of politics over Labor in greater numbers at both state and federal levels and it’s a key reason these five seats remain seemingly safe in LNP hands.

It was anticipated this trend would continue in the current election but there’s been an event that might change all that: the COVID-19 virus and attitudes surrounding it among older Queenslanders.

There is no available hard data that backs this thesis but it is being talked about in Labor and LNP campaign ranks, especially among strategists and politicians who have been out and about listening to voters.

“There are plenty of older voters who might have never given Labor a second thought but for the virus,” said one Labor insider. “These are people who have felt the most vulnerable from a disease that can strike hardest within this age cohort and they back strong, resolute policies in minimising the spread of the virus.”

An independent pollster who has conducted focus groups in Queensland for non-party political clients said older voters were the first to mention Annastacia Palaszczuk’s steadfast border closure as a reason to support her and her government.

An LNP figure reported feedback from candidates that older voters were worried about the virus and wanted policies that would contain and control the spread of infections.

This LNP source said it was one reason Deb Frecklington’s campaign headed for Hervey Bay on Monday – visiting a seat that should be secure for the party with a double-digit margin but is in play because the sitting MP has retired and there is reported softness in the vote.

It also shouldn’t escape notice that while the LNP leader was in Hervey Bay, the Premier was in another seat from our list, Pumicestone, promising big spending on a series of locally focused “satellite” hospitals, including one on Bribie Island.

A shift among older voters is becoming an increasingly important factor in that other big election under way at the moment – the 2020 US presidential contest.

When Donald Trump won in 2016 he had plenty of wind in his sails from older Americans, especially in key battleground states such as Florida, Maine, Arizona and Montana.

Now the mood is changing, as is reported by polling guru Nate Silver of the Fivethirtyeight website. According to Silver there has been a 12 percentage point shift from the Republicans to the Democrats among those aged 65-plus from the 2016 result to the latest polling in recent weeks. “The most important factor might be COVID-19,” says Silver.

An NBC News report at the weekend had this to say about Florida and another key state Pennsylvania: “According to a recent New York Times/Siena College Research Institute poll in Florida and Pennsylvania, [Democrat Joe] Biden leads [President Donald] Trump among likely voters, by 7 and 5 points respectively.

“Among senior voters, Biden is ahead by 47 percent to 45 percent in Florida and by 53 per cent to 42 per cent in Pennsylvania.”

Jack Stanton, digital editor of Politico Magazine, wrote a lengthy report on the shift among senior voters last week, highlighting the impact of COVID-19.

“The pandemic has shown a spotlight on older adults, because they are most at risk – the numbers who die from COVID or get it and have bad health complications just increases dramatically the older that you get,” wrote Stanton.

“People who are older are more fearful about actually getting sick from the disease. They’ve also seen it: They’re more likely to know someone who’s been infected or has died.”

If these trends are showing up in Queensland there could be a significant impact at the October 31 poll. Seats that might have otherwise remained safely LNP could be on the move, giving the Labor Party more breathing space in maintaining its narrow majority – and maybe even increasing it.

With some losses in regional and far northern parts of the state quite likely, Labor is hoping and praying it can find some seats in the southeast to take off the LNP to preserve the party’s majority.

There’s no doubt COVID-19 has changed just about everything in this extraordinary year. We could be watching voting habits joining that list of surprise consequences.

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