ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Think of him as an older, shier Biden voter.
Male, 58 years old, a lifelong Republican. Voted for candidate Donald Trump in 2016 yet refuses to have anything to do with President Donald Trump in 2020 for a host of reasons, but especially his botched response to the pandemic.
“I voted for him because I wasn’t a Hillary Clinton fan. I said, gosh, he couldn’t be worse than Hillary Clinton. I was mistaken,” he said after emerging from the Pinellas County office building after casting his ballot for Trump’s Democratic opponent. “We know who he is this time around. This time around, he’s a known quantity.”
This newly minted Democratic voter spoke on condition of anonymity because, as a real estate agent, a good number of people in his social group and his clients are Trump supporters. He’s a mirror of the so-called “shy Trump voter” who will not admit to supporting the president because of peer pressure. And how common or uncommon he is in Florida, with its vast 50-and-older population, will likely determine whether Trump keeps his job next week or retires to his newly adopted home state himself.
With its 29 electoral votes, Florida has more than Michigan and Wisconsin combined, and would almost certainly guarantee a Trump loss should Democrat Joe Biden manage to win the state.
“If you bring Florida home, this thing’s over,” former President Barack Obama said during a weekend visit to the Miami Springs campaign office of his vice president.
Bringing Florida home for Biden doesn’t even require winning those older voters who make up fully half of the state’s likely electorate. It just means cutting into Trump’s enormous margins with that group four years ago — a phenomenon that appears to be happening already.
“Right now, Trump has a bare majority with them in Florida. That’s a very bad outcome for him,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime GOP consultant in the state and a prominent Trump critic. He attributed the president’s problem with the group “almost 100%” to his response to the coronavirus pandemic, which included downplaying it from the outset and at one point calling it a hoax.
“When Granny realizes she’s not going to see her grandson’s graduation or go to a family reunion, or pretty much anything, without the risk of dying, it tends to have a negative political impact,” Wilson said.
Losing Voters With Little Margin To Lose
Trump, for his part, has always counted on winning Florida and has boasted of it with a certainty not necessarily warranted by facts.
In 2016, while the Hillary Clinton campaign had built an expensive voter turnout machine that, in the end, failed to bring younger Black and Latino voters to the polls, Trump was helped by the perennially effective operation created in recent decades by the state Republican Party.
Trump managed to win the state, but only by 1.2 percentage points, or 112,911 votes. A big part of that win was maintaining support among older voters, many of them retirees, who have traditionally supported Republicans because of their opposition to tax increases.
According to the 2016 exit polls, Trump defeated Clinton 55-43, or 12 percentage points, among voters aged 50-64, who made up 29% of the state’s electorate. Among voters 65 and older, who made up 21% of the electorate, Trump won by a staggering 17 percent margin, 57-40.
Recent polling, though, shows that Trump has lost that big margin with Florida’s seniors. A recent CBS/YouGov poll conducted over three days last week finds Trump with just an 8-point margin over Biden among both the 45-64 age group as well as 65 and over.
We know who he is this time around. This time around, he’s a known quantity. 58-year-old former Trump voter who voted for Biden in 2020
That change with older Floridians tracks Trump’s slippage nationally, where his problem with those high-propensity voters is even worse.
In 2016, Trump won the 50-64 age group by 8 points and the 65 and over group by 7 points. According to a recent Economist/YouGov poll, Trump is now actually trailing Biden among voters aged 45-64 by 3 points. Among voters 65 and over, he is down 10 points, 51-41.
That swing does not surprise David Longacre, 61, who said Trump’s repeated minimizing of the coronavirus has enraged the cohort most susceptible to the disease’s deadly complications.
“He wouldn’t listen to anyone,” said Longacre, a regional sales manager for an air conditioning firm, after casting his ballot for Biden at the downtown St. Petersburg early voting site. “He wanted to think he knew everything, and he didn’t.”
One top Republican close to Trump, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the campaign feels confident it has not lost that much ground with older voters and predicted a 3-point win next week.
“We’re in really good shape in Florida,” he said, but then added that knowing this with any certainty was difficult because the campaign is not conducting a tracking poll in a number of key states. “Florida, and we’re not polling. It’s weird.”
Trump’s Most Loyal Fans Still Loyal
While claiming that the Trump campaign is carrying out all the necessary activities of a normal campaign, spokesperson Tim Murtaugh would not address the specific question of a Florida tracking poll, which closely monitors the electorate in a race’s closing days.
However, Wilson, the GOP consultant, said there’s nothing weird about not having a daily tracking poll — once it’s understood that the campaign is running out of money.
“A lot of their polling contractors stopped getting paid in September, so they’re not doing work,” he said. “They’re broke. They’re largely flying blind right now.”
Whether Trump is monitoring the strength of his support or not, though, most longtime Republicans remain in his corner — even as they make excuses for his coronavirus response.
Nancy Cullinane, a 71-year-old retired teacher and administrator who moved to Florida from Kentucky, defended Trump’s continued downplaying of the disease. “I don’t think you want to share that fear with 300 million people,” she said after emerging from the North Collier Regional Park offices in Naples, where she had just cast her vote for Trump.
“I think the president has done a wonderful job keeping an even keel,” said Joanne Joachim, a 64-year-old retiree originally from Rhode Island, after voting for Trump at the Laurel Manor Recreation Center in The Villages, a central Florida Republican stronghold. “Nobody’s perfect. … We’re still under 300,000 deaths. I believe that’s a small percentage of the population.”
Ed Carron, a 55-year-old who lives with his parents there, acknowledged that Trump may not have done the best job with the pandemic. “Maybe his COVID handling could have been better,” he said, but added that he doubted anyone else would have done it much differently and that Trump likely gets more criticism because of his bombastic approach to everything. “His mouth does get him into trouble.”
That trouble, though, may result in Trump losing enough of his 2016 older voters to lose the state.
Even in The Villages, Biden campaign volunteer Carolee McReynolds, 77, said she has seen signs of defections. In the recreation center parking lot, sitting in front of her 2009 Ford minivan emblazoned with Biden-Harris signs, she waved and shouted out as the occasional pro-Biden voter would walk or drive past.
“He’s a disaster as a human being,” she said of Trump. “I think he’s losing support.”
Joe Eisegruber, 80, is a Villages resident who says he was once a straight-ticket Republican voter but, in the age of Trump, has started backing Democrats in other races, too. “I wouldn’t vote for that son of a bitch for all the tea in China,” he said of Trump. “I don’t think he knows what he’s doing.”
Some 300 miles to the south, Julie Rivas has come to that same conclusion.
The 64-year-old retiree, who does not follow politics particularly closely, said she voted for Trump in 2016. But walking out of Miami Beach City Hall on a recent rainy evening after casting a ballot for Biden, she said the president’s inability to deliver on his promises, as well as his cavalier handling of the coronavirus, made her change her mind.
“We all make mistakes. It’s hard for him to resolve all the world’s problems,” she said. “But somebody has to do better.”