A poll worker assists a voter in Tallahassee, Fla. | Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida seniors, long an unflinching bloc of reliable GOP votes, are suddenly in play as President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus has his reelection campaign on the defensive.
The pandemic and anxiety about possible cuts to entitlement programs have eroded the GOP’s once-solid advantage with the battleground state’s retirees, recent polls show, a demographic Republicans have won by double digits in recent presidential races.
“I really got sick of him when he did not wear a mask, and he took the control totally away from the governors. It was a very bad situation,” said Joy Solomon, a 65-year-old from Boca Raton who voted for Trump in 2016 largely because that’s who her husband supported, but who has now turned against the president. “I want this place to come back to some sense of normalcy.”
“He just lies about everything,” she said.
Retirees have long flocked to Florida’s warm climate and white sandy beaches, where they’ve gained outsized political sway in the nation’s largest swing state. In the 2012 presidential election, voters 65 and older comprised 26 percent of all votes, a number that jumped to 30 percent in 2016.
Ryan Tyson, a Florida Republican pollster and founder of the Tyson Group, said Biden is running up against a ceiling of 38 percent with white voters that other Democrats almost always hit in Florida.
“Biden might be doing a point or two better than Hillary Clinton did in 2016,” Tyson said of the race for Florida’s senior vote. “But he is hitting the same ceiling with white voters that Hillary Clinton and [2016 Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Andrew Gillum did. If Democrats figure that out, they win the state. But they have not.”
To break out, Biden has put more than $700,000 into a Florida ad highlighting Trump’s “planned cuts to Social Security.” The ad references an August executive order from Trump that would temporarily suspend the collection of payroll taxes, which fund Social Security. It’s Biden’s seventh senior-focused ad.
In a Tampa Bay Times op-ed, Biden wrote about “Donna and Roger” from The Villages, a retirement community north of Orlando, and how Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic left them unable to see their grandchildren.
“Jill and I feel the same way about not seeing our grandchildren as much as we want to,” Biden wrote. “Video calls are great, but they’re just not the same, especially after six months of being away from the ones you love the most at the time in your life you need them the most.”
Trump last week rolled out a package of health care-focused promises, including mailing $200 drug discount cards to retirees before Election Day to defray the cost of prescription drug co-pays, a push to end the practice of surprise medical billing, and a pledge to protect insurance coverage for people with preexisting conditions.
And, like Biden, Trump also is tapping into fear. One campaign ad contemplates a lawless future if Biden becomes president. The 30-second spot concludes with “You won’t be safe in Biden’s America”. Trump’s campaign has so far put $1.1 million behind the ad in Florida, of which more than $400,000 was spent in the Orlando media market, home to The Villages.
The Villages, home to some 130,000 retirees, for years has been a reliable feeder of Republican votes as conservative-leaning, white voters from the upper Midwest move to the community.
The region remains overwhelmingly Republican, but during the 2020 cycle Democrats have shown signs of life, putting together large parades of golf carts — the favored means of transportation — in support of Biden and building their ranks within The Villages Democratic clubs.
“For the longest time, Democrats would only whisper around this place. I’ve put a great deal of effort into trying to make us a bit louder,” said Chris Stanley, head of The Villages Democratic Club. “What really helped me, and it’s kind of ironic, was Trump. It’s really been over the past four years where Democrats have become more visible.”
Ed McGinty, who moved from the Philadelphia suburbs to The Villages in 2015, has become the poster child for a Democratic resonance in the conservative stronghold. He has gotten national attention recently of holding anti-Trump signs along the roadways and golf cart paths that run through the massive development.
He said the motivation came shortly after a neighbor physically threatened him because he was wearing a hat supporting Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“He said if I keep wearing the hat, I should make sure my life insurance is good,” McGinty said of the exchange, which happened shortly after Trump’s 2016 win. “I’m just really not someone who takes threats well. So, I thought I’d show those mother f——.”
He said The Villages has always been political, but in the months leading up to the 2020 race, things have gotten worse.
“I’m the most hated man in The Villages, and I say that with all sincerity” he said. “But that’s OK.”