Sara Branscome’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.”
Branscome’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. Branscome 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 Branscome.
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.”
Jeff Johnson, the state director for the Florida AARP, believes voters over 65 are more “in play” in this year’s presidential race, largely because of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. In recent weeks, Democrats have seized on this softening of support and have rolled out six ads targeting older voters.
In 2018, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the American electorate conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for The Associated Press, older Republicans thought immigration was the nation’s most important issue, while older Democrats said health care was. But this year, with the pandemic, concern about health care has become a top issue for both.
The Trump campaign seems to be paying attention. On Thursday, the president released a video of himself standing on the White House lawn in which he called older adults “my favorite people.” Noting that they are vulnerable to the virus, he asserted with no basis in fact that a medicine he said he was given in the hospital would be free to older people.
“The seniors are going to be taken care of,” he said.
That is not how it has played out so far. Not only has Florida been slammed by the virus, but also no other demographic has been affected more than older people. About 93% of Florida’s 15,100 deaths from the virus have been people 55 and older, and many are scared — and enraged.
“The whole virus thing has hit really hard here,” said Branscome, who pointed out that almost everyone in The Villages moved there from somewhere else. “We can’t go see our families because of COVID. I’m not seeing an end to it. There is no plan. Biden has a plan. He wears a mask. It gives us hope.”
In recent weeks, Morrill watched as Trump announced he was infected with COVID-19, left the hospital days later and dramatically removed his mask upon his return to the White House.
“I was angry,” she said, her voice shaking. “He’s showing a bad example. He thinks that nothing’s going to affect him. It feels like one lie after another.”
For the golf cart caravan, she wore a T-shirt that said “Team Fauci,” referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert. “I trust the scientists and the doctors. I don’t trust Trump.”
Those sentiments extend well beyond the well-tended streets of The Villages. Ron Hood, 78, a retired college biology professor, lives on the Atlantic coast in Jacksonville. Hood, a Democrat, is voting for Biden. He, too, feels that Trump has left older adults behind.
“I do think there has been an attitude: ‘Well, it’s not that important to keep them alive and well. If we can’t, well, that’s too bad. Nice knowing you, bye,’” he said. “I just try not to dwell on things like that, though.”
In rural Alachua County, which Clinton carried easily in 2016, 69-year-old Maxie Hicks is deeply troubled by the country’s direction and Trump’s leadership. Hicks, who is Black, said he’s been thinking a lot about the civil rights movement, when he was a teenager.
“I’ve never seen this type of cold-blooded hate, not even back then,” he said. “This is a Donald Trump funk. I’ve never seen this much hostility.”
The retired state transportation department worker often thinks about how he and Trump are similar in age. “I don’t know how he could come through our generation and be so mean. So heartless. So insensitive. So indecent. So ungentlemanly.”
The hostility that Hicks bemoans has played out even in “the friendliest town,” where Villagers who are Trump enthusiasts have held their own golf cart parades.
In June, a fight broke out between Trump and Biden supporters in front of the Panera Bread shop, and one Trump supporter was captured on video yelling, “White power!”
People still talk about that, and there appear to be some lingering hurt feelings. On Wednesday, during the Biden rally, one woman in her golf cart decked out with Biden signs smiled and said good morning to a man coming from the other direction in a cart with a Trump sign.
“Shove it!” he said.
Judy Wise, a 75-year-old retiree in Plant City, a town east of Tampa on the Interstate 4 corridor, said her niece hasn’t spoken to her in years, since a fight over Trump. Wise is a stalwart supporter, and her niece is not.
“It’s not so much about the man, but the ideology,” Wise explained. She’s convinced that Biden and the Democrats have a “plan to unseat capitalism” and that he will be a “puppet” of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, progressive Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris.
Wise believes in small government and lower taxes, and she’s worried about the summer’s recent nationwide protests, a few of which have turned violent. She recognizes that Trump can be abrasive, but it doesn’t bother her, and she questions media reports that Trump had called servicemen and women “losers.” Trump wouldn’t do that, she said.
Pamela Allen, 72, supported Trump from the time he came down the escalator in Trump Tower in 2015 to announce his candidacy. Every few weeks, she waves Trump flags on the roadside of her Tampa suburb of Holiday with a group of other Republicans.
“I love him. I think he’s doing a great job. He’s addressing the situations of everyday people’s normal everyday concerns,” she said. “He’s keeping his promises, with little to no help from the media or the Democrats. There is no positivity on anything he does.”
As for the pandemic, she does think it’s serious for older people, but “it may be blown out of proportion.”
“I don’t believe the numbers they’re posting about deaths. I wash my hands. I wear my mask. I avoid getting very close to people I don’t know,” she said.
Professor MacManus cautions that while some older voters have gravitated toward Biden, there are many others like Allen and Wise who are firmly in Trump’s corner. But that might not be enough for Trump.
“They’re still probably leaning more towards Trump. But in Florida, you look at margins,” she said. “He won the senior vote in Florida by double digits in 2016. And now we’re showing single digits in polls. ... Any bleeding of any cohort is a red flag for that candidate.”
And in this week’s golf cart caravan, the Biden flags were blue.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, Josh Boak and Michael Schneider contributed to this report.