On October 7, hundreds of seniors paraded America’s largest retirement community at an event to drop off ballots for the upcoming election. Most of them drove in golf carts — the preferred method of transport — while honking and clapping in constant cheer. Hundreds of vehicles festooned with signage, balloons, and flags patiently fill the road, queuing for miles.
Located in Sumter County, Florida, The Villages is home to some of Trump’s most loyal supporters. But during this parade, the golf carts were embellished in blue decor and signs reading “End the Trumpedemic.” These people were not delivering ballots for Donald Trump, but for his Democratic opponent Joe Biden.
This was an unprecedented sight in The Villages, an old and predominantly white community that gave almost 70 percent of its vote to Trump in 2016.
Yet as the Presidential Election looms near, the Biden campaign is gathering more momentum among seniors. And that is not just happening in The Villages. This trend is occurring all over the United States.
The Dwindling Support Base
In a poll conducted by The New York Times/Siena College Research Institute in early October, Biden led Trump by 9 points among citizens over 65. That number jumped to 16 in a Quinnipiac poll and to 21 in a CNN/SSRS poll. This was a bloc that voted 52 percent for Trump in 2016. In fact, no Democrat presidential candidate has won over the elderly constituency since Al Gore two decades ago. Trump’s decaying popularity with senior Americans illustrates a significant threat to the strength of the GOP.
Historically speaking, old voters have the highest turnout rate compared to other age groups. According to the US Census Bureau, the bloc showed up at a whopping 70.9 percent during the last presidential election, as opposed to the 46.1 percent amongst voters between 18-24. Seniors consisted of more than one-fourth of the electorate in 2016, and their reliability renders them an enticing demographic during elections.
“Senior citizens in the United States of America always play a huge role in the presidential elections,” Jeff Brauer, Professor of Political Science at Keystone College, told The Globe Post. “They are super voters.”
On top of their turnout consistency, retired citizens also happen to concentrate more in crucial battleground states of this election, including Florida. Swing states like Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida have larger shares of 65+ residents than the national average, according to the 2020 Almanac of American Politics.
Both parties are highly conscious of elderly Americans’ importance to the race and are vying for their support on the campaign trail.
“I will protect you, I will defend you, and I will fight for you with every ounce of energy and conviction that I have,” said Trump during a crowded campaign rally at Fort Myers, Florida on October 13. “My administration is working every day to give our amazing senior citizens the care, support, and respect that you deserve.”
On the same day, a masked Biden gave a speech to 50 socially-distanced retirees at a care center in Pembroke Pines, Florida. “To Donald Trump, you’re expendable. You’re forgettable. You’re virtually nobody,” he told them, adding that “the only senior that Donald Trump cares about is the senior Donald Trump.”
Not Just COVID-19
This battle for seniors’ attention conspires under the shadow of COVID-19. And although the pandemic is a salient issue for vulnerable demographics, there are many other reasons for Trump’s slipping grasp on older voters.
Chris Stanley, president of The Villages Democratic Club, said that to a degree, residents are upset about Trump’s mishandling of the virus. “To a larger degree, they’re just horrified by the tweeting and the lying and the, you know, anti-American democracy sentiments,” she told The Globe Post.
Steffen Schmidt, Professor Emeritus in Political Science at Iowa State University, explained that “older voters still tend to have what we call ‘traditional values.’ President Trump was expected by many of them to ‘start acting presidential’ once he won the election in 2016. That has not happened. In fact the president’s behavior has been more brash and bullying. That’s a turnoff for many older voters.”
Another reason can be accredited to the Biden campaign vowing to protect Social Security, improve Medicare, and lower prescription drug prices, which are among the top five election issues for Americans over 50.
Schmidt told The Globe Post that seniors are horrified by “the threat of them losing the Affordable Care Act and of Medicare being changed,” concerns that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
For Sibyl Dunlap, an 80-year-old from Arizona with pre-existing health conditions, healthcare is indeed “the number one thing” these elections. Dunlap was a Republican for many years, but is now the vice president of the Sun City Democratic Club. In this election, she is more involved than ever in her club, which has seen a spike in membership “ever since Trump became president.”
“Trump has made it clear to all of us seniors that we are the scapegoat, we are the ones that are okay to die,” she told The Globe Post.
Joe Biden also possesses an idiosyncratic moderate history, a potential point of appeal for those who are wary of radicalism. As an older voter herself, Dunlap believes in Joe Biden’s “ability to work across the aisle.”
Professor Brauer from Keystone College explained to The Globe Post that seniors are generally more conservative, so “if they’re going to vote for a Democrat, that Democrat has to be a moderate, centrist Democrat for them to be comfortable with casting that vote. And Joe Biden definitely checks off that box.”
Even the former vice president himself is aware of this. During a speech after violent clashes between protestors and far-right militias, he rhetorically asked the audience, “do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?”
Having lived in a time before political hyper-polarization, older voters are also more accustomed to vote switching.
“I’ve always voted for the person more than the party,” said Dunlap.
Losing by Numbers, Not by Loyalty
Although Trump is slipping in the polls, he is not slipping in loyalty.
Dunlap has heard of many incidents of Republicans taking down Democratic lawn signs and vice versa. Whereas party affiliations “just didn’t matter in life” before, it is now the cause of family splits and friendship breakups.
A similar animosity manifests in The Villages. While the community’s Democratic Club president Stanley and her organization are attracting more supporters by day, she is also receiving a lot more hostility from devout Trump supporters, who still make up the majority in The Villages. Stanley described how people would casually lean over from their golf carts and tell her that she is a “baby killer,” or else call her names for wearing a mask and a blue shirt. According to Stanley, this occurs on a regular basis.
Much of The Villages knew of a different way of talking politics. Stanley herself remembers a time when Americans cared more about policy rather than party. Now, she observes that “people are so entrenched that party politics has become part of their personality.”
The Villages brands itself to residents and developers as Florida’s Friendliest Hometown, but more Villagers are starting to doubt the accuracy of this title. In an op-ed to the local newspaper, a resident stated that “‘until the day comes when the forces we see jousting with one another put down their placards and verbal assaults of one another, The Villages cannot be, and will not deserve to have the moniker, the ‘friendliest hometown.’”
Stanley believes that Trump will still win The Villages this year, but “he won’t win as decisively.” Biden’s newfound popularity among seniors makes Stanley “cautiously optimistic” that Biden will win Florida. Although her club is in the minority, Stanley says that membership has been higher than ever. As the country approaches November 3, she is still tirelessly organizing Zoom sessions and events, in hopes that her community and country can return to a more united state.
“Hopefully we can get back to those days,” Stanley said, “but it’s not going to happen overnight.” Not even on Elections Night.