If Donald Trump believed joining the ranks of Florida’s senior voters would earn him political capital with a group crucial to his hopes of a second term in the White House, it may have been a miscalculation.
National opinion polls show the 74-year-old president is chasing a substantial deficit among seniors, and his standing with older voters in the Sunshine State appears equally grim, with less than a month until election day.
In 2016, Trump trounced Hillary Clinton in Florida by about 17 points among elderly voters, exit polls indicated. The state is considered critical for Trump’s path to victory in 2020, yet this time around, some polls of voters 65 and older suggest it could be a virtual tie between the Republican incumbent and his challenger Joe Biden, while others give the Democrat an even healthier advantage.
That could be all Biden needs to clinch a win in “the 1% state”, so called for the closeness of its important elections.
“You go to places like The Villages [retirement community] and mostly they’re going to vote for Trump, but it’s gone from most to mostly,” said Charles Zelden, professor of history and politics at Nova Southeastern University, and a veteran Florida poll watcher.
“That additional 10 to 20% may be enough for Biden to win the I-4 corridor. You win the I-4 corridor, you win Florida. You win Florida, effectively Biden has won the election.”
The key issues that will determine the beneficiary of Florida’s 29 electoral college votes – Covid-19, the economy, and the pandemic’s impact on it – have particular resonance for older voters, and account for soaring levels of enthusiasm for Biden, according to seniors keen to see the former vice-president return to the White House at the age of 78.
Aside from the opinion polling data, there is perhaps no better bellwether of Florida seniors’ voting intentions than the tradition of golf cart rallies, the ultimate symbol of political expression in retirement communities across the state.
Once the near-exclusive preserve of Republican supporters, rallies in The Villages, north of Orlando; in Sun City Center, south of Tampa; and other sizable and classically Floridian enclaves of retirees have become noticeably more blue in recent months.
“They’re loving it, they’re having a ball,” said Chris Stanley, president of the Democratic Club of The Villages, 32 sq miles of north-central Florida where census figures show 80% of the 125,000 residents are older than 65 and more than 98% are white.
She says such energy is mirrored in activism: “Several times a day people will call and ask: ‘What can I do?’ People who have never paid attention to politics before are working the phone bank, helping with the data, out there doing the traditional campaign stuff.”
The reasons for the surge of support for the Democratic candidate in a region that went for Trump by a 115,000-vote margin in 2016 are simple, Stanley says.
“They’re turned off by him. They’re concerned for their Medicare, their social security, of course. But they can’t stand the hate, the vitriol. They’re considering Biden because of the way Trump behaves,” she said.
Perhaps aware of this image problem, the Trump campaign is giving The Villages, and Florida, a lot of attention this week. Vice-President Mike Pence spoke there on Saturday and Trump’s first public appearance outside Washington following his Covid-19 hospitalization was in Sanford on Monday.
In a state where about a quarter of its 14 million voters are 65 or older, Trump clearly feels he needs all the public relations help he can get.
Zelden, the political science professor, agrees with Stanley. “You’re seeing similar shifts among the elderly as you are with women in general, and college-educated women in particular. They’re just tired of the drama. They want some stability,” he said.
“And Biden offers them that stability. In the case of the elderly he’s one of them in a way that Trump really isn’t. Maybe in terms of age he is, but in experience and background he isn’t. You could picture Biden living in Florida in a two-bedroom villa but you couldn’t picture Trump doing that, or anywhere other than a multi-room palace in Palm Beach.”
Covid-19 is spreading fear among seniors, Dr Zelden says, not only in Florida where the virus has claimed more than 15,000 lives, but in other states where Trump’s once-solid support from the ageing voters is also fading, such as Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin.
“People are concerned, they’re afraid, they’re frustrated, and they hear the president talking about how it was a blessing he got it, he conquered it,” he said. “Well, he hasn’t conquered it and if he has he’s done it with a medical cocktail that no one else in the country has access to.
“Seniors are fed up with that even if they like elements of Trump’s agenda. They want stimulus, they want the economy to be humming because it keeps their investments going well. It’s the obvious things like that, but there are a lot of elderly voters who saw the president talking over and interrupting constantly in the [first presidential] debate and they didn’t like it.
“There’s a subset of seniors who really like the bombastic element of Trump, they tend to be male, they tend to be a little bombastic themselves. [But] a lot of them have wives who are rolling their eyes.”
Even Trump’s supporters acknowledge that, economically at least, things aren’t so good. “Most seniors are relying on a fixed income and they may have investments, and with the economy down and maybe because of the virus their investments are not doing as well,” said Dick Inglis, 78, from Sun City Center, a retirement community of about 17,000 with an average age of 75.
Inglis, president of the enclave’s Republican club, sees coronavirus as “an extra thing to be careful about” for seniors but not an overriding election issue.
“When it comes down to what seniors are concerned about, it’s money,” he said. “They want to know if they’ll have enough for their future and if Joe Biden is going to eliminate the tax cuts that Donald Trump brought in. They want to make sure their healthcare is in place, and that they’re safe.”
Inglis doubts seniors are put off by Trump’s combative style, citing a surge in membership of the Republican club this year. “I compare them to a poodle and a bulldog,” he said of Biden and Trump. “Which would you rather own? Of course it would be the poodle. But which one would you want guarding your house?”
Mail-in voting, favored by many Florida seniors, including Trump, began on 24 September, and analysts such as Zelden doubt there are many yet to make up their minds in any case. But Jackie McGuinness, Biden’s press secretary in Florida, said Democrats would work right up until election day to chase down every last vote.
“One candidate has seniors’ backs and the other doesn’t. One has a plan for Covid and the other doesn’t,” she said. “In Florida every single vote counts and reaching seniors is a high priority.”