Sara Branscom’s golf cart whizzed down the smooth asphalt path that winds through The Villages, the nation’s largest retirement community, an expanse of beautiful homes, shops and entertainment venues that bills itself as “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.”
Branscom’s cart was festooned with two American flags that flapped in the warm afternoon breeze. A line of oncoming carts bedecked with balloons and patriotic streamers chugged past while honking. Branscom jabbed her left foot on the horn pedal, then gave a thumbs-up.
“This gets you rejuvenated and ready for the next month or so, so we can do this and win. It gives you hope,” the 60-year-old retiree said.
Then she let out a whoop and two surprising words: “Go Biden!”
It’s not a cry that might be expected to resound in The Villages, and it’s certainly not one that is encouraging to President Donald Trump. Older voters helped propel him to the White House — the Pew Research Center estimates Trump led among voters 65 and older by 9 percentage points in 2016 — and his campaign hoped they would be a bulwark to cement a second term.
They remain a huge chunk of the electorate. Pew estimates that nationwide, nearly 1 in 4 eligible voters will be 65 and older. It’s the highest level on record, going back to 1970.
But there have been warnings that older voters are in play. To be sure, Trump has solid support among older adults, but his campaign has seen a drop-off in its internal research, according to campaign aides, and some public polls suggest Democrat Joe Biden is running ahead or just even with Trump.
Mostly, it seems, older voters have been put off by Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, which affects these voters more acutely than others. They were particularly alarmed by Trump’s performances at daily task force briefings in the spring because his remarks showed an uneven handling of the crisis and inspired little confidence.
The president has tried to shore up his popularity with older adults. He has emphasized themes of law and order, and has warned that Democrats would preside over a sundering of the suburbs. He has promoted his prescription drug policy. And he has kept up steady visits to Florida — after Maine, the state with the oldest population — and advertised heavily there.
But whatever improvement he saw is now in jeopardy. The president’s own COVID-19 infection has refocused attention on the virus and his handling of it. If the 74-year-old Trump can’t safeguard his own health, some wonder, how can he be trusted to protect other older adults who are far more vulnerable?
In few places could any significant drop-off spell doom more profoundly than Florida, a state Trump almost certainly must win. Older adults historically are the most reliable voters, and Florida is infamous for its tight races. So even a modest drop in support could send Trump back to private life.
The Villages, where the median age is 66, is built on the American dream of a golden retirement. “We’ve created the backdrop of possibilities for you to write the next chapter in your story,” its website says.
Retirees can enjoy everything from golf to seminars on Mark Twain to drinking a cold beverage in the town square while listening to a “jamgrass” band (progressive bluegrass in the vein of Phish).
Politically, it long has been considered a conservative redoubt, so entrenched that it’s a must-stop for any national or statewide Republican running for office. One clear measure of its importance: Vice President Mike Pence’s scheduled visit Saturday.
The Morse family, which developed the community northwest of Orlando, has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican campaigns over the years. During the 2008 presidential race, GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin drew a stadium-sized crowd with 60,000 residents flocking to see her in one of the community’s town squares.
Last fall, Trump picked The Villages to promote his support for Medicare and its private insurance option.
But on Wednesday, the scene told a markedly different story. An armada of as many as 500 golf carts gathered at the Sea Breeze Recreation Center to caravan to the nearby elections office, so folks could drop off ballots for Biden.
As each cart rolled into the parking lot and slid a ballot into a locked box under the watchful eye of elections supervisors, dozens lined the sidewalk, cheering and clapping every time a vote was cast.
“I think we all came out of the closet for this election,” said Branscom.
It’s not that there weren’t Hillary Clinton supporters in The Villages in 2016, said Chris Stanley, president of the community’s Democratic Club. There were.
But there was also “an overwhelming sense in 2016 of ‘we’ve got this in the bag.’ There was a level of complacency that she’d win,” said Stanley. “Now there’s a heightened sense of urgency, and in many ways, Trump has been our best recruiting tool ever.”
If the slow moving, four-wheel, golf cart show of force is an indication of growing allegiance to the Democrat among the retiree set, it would represent a substantial shift. In Florida, 29% of registered voters are 65 and older. As of Oct. 1, 43% were Republican, 37% were Democrats and 17% were nonpartisan.
Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida distinguished professor of government and international affairs, said The Villages and its powerful voting demographic have become less Republican over the years because of an influx of more liberal people from the Northeast.
She’s seen research that shows a softening in Trump’s older base, both nationally and in Florida — especially with women.
“That’s the group that’s leaving Trump,” she said. “And it’s because of his demeanor, more than his policies. For older women, especially. They went through the battles. They frankly do not appreciate the demeaning of women. More than that, they’re thinking of their children and their grandchildren.”
Indeed, at The Villages, many of the people riding in golf carts are women like Joan Morrill, a 76-year-old former Republican. The pandemic has weighed heavily on her, especially when she considers her four children and seven grandchildren. “We can’t live like this …” she said. “I want a better world for them.”
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