Covid-19 costs Trump vital support among Florida retirees

Some retirees, many of them women, are ditching Mr Trump in this election, writes James Reinl in Florida

It sells itself as a pensioner’s paradise in sunny Florida, but tension is high in The Villages, America’s largest retirement community, where friendships are being tested by a fractious presidential election campaign.

Here, supporters of President Donald Trump clash with those who back his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.

There are reports of cursing, cold shoulders and retirees making crude gestures as they scoot past one another in golf buggies decked out with campaign slogans.

Crucially, some Floridian retirees, many of them women, are dropping Mr Trump for his brash manner and handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, which has killed more than 228,000 in the US, threatening his chances in a must-win state in next week’s election.

 

"Democrats are definitely in the minority but we're here, and more than people would think," Andrea Coburn, 77, told The National, sitting on a shaded boardwalk beside the tree-lined Lake Sumter.

“I get in my golf cart, which has all the Biden slogans, and I get thumbs up. Not too many thumbs down any more. If I pass a Trump cart I avoid eye contact.”

Nationwide political divisions are driving a wedge through what calls itself “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown”, upending a lifestyle of long brunches, exercise classes and evening concerts of Boomer-generation rock classics.

“I don't ask how people are going to vote. I don't want to know,” Ms Coburn said.

Her friend, Nancy Margaret Wineman, 70, originally from New York, said many women who backed Mr Trump in 2016 were “switching” to a gentler Mr Biden because “they’re really turned off” by the president’s crass manner.

“He’s been terrible with the coronavirus crisis,” said Ms Wineman, wearing a blue Biden-Harris 2020 T-shirt.

“He has no plan. He lies to people. He says we’re rounding the corner on the virus but it won’t even be cured with the vaccine.”

Voters aged 65 and over backed Mr Trump by a 9 per cent margin in 2016 and, as one of America’s most dependable voting blocs, it helped him win the White House, a Pew Research Centre study showed.

Back then, Mr Trump won The Villages and other Florida exurbs by a wide margin over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, helping him to take the state’s valuable 29 electoral college votes.

This year, polls indicate many older American voters are turning away from Mr Trump.

The “grey revolt” in The Villages and other retirement communities could cost him Florida, and his keys to the Oval Office.

An average of opinion polls compiled by Real Clear Politics  on Thursday gave Mr Biden a slim, 1.4 percentage point lead over Mr Trump in Florida, with 48.3 per cent of those polled against the president's 46.9 per cent.

Coronavirus is among Mr Trump’s biggest problems here.

The Sunshine State has been slammed by the disease, recording 790,000 infections and 16,570 deaths. By far, most of the victims have been people aged 55 and older.

In The Villages, where the average age is 66, dreams of a golden American retirement have been shattered by the virus.

Mr Biden’s talk of empty chairs at breakfast tables resonates among the bereaved, the scared and the angry.

Across the US, Covid-19 has infected almost nine million people and caused millions of job losses.

Case numbers are climbing rapidly in the Midwest and Rocky Mountains regions this week, and millions of Americans have voted early to avoid crowded polling stations on November 3.

Mr Biden holds a comfortable lead in national polls, with voters increasingly dismayed by Mr Trump’s handling of the largest public health crisis in living memory.

But polls in Florida and other toss-up states are much tighter.

Mr Trump has continued to hold packed rallies at which few people wear protective masks.

Epidemiologists worry about those attending shouting and chanting while packed closely together, aiding the spread of the virus.

“Biden and the Democrat socialists will delay the vaccine, prolong the pandemic, shutter your schools and shut down our country,” Mr Trump said at a rally in Goodyear, Arizona, this week.

“And your state is open, right? Your state is nice and open.”

In response, Mr Biden slammed the Trump administration’s apparent disregard for safety and failure to develop a national strategy to contain the pandemic.

“The longer he’s in charge the more reckless he gets,” he said before casting his vote in Wilmington, Delaware.

Susan MacManus, a political analyst and former University of South Florida professor, said Mr Trump’s base of older supporters was softening in Florida and across the US, especially with women “who don't like his tone or are worried about his handling of Covid-19”.

Meanwhile, residents in the gated communities of The Villages have become less solidly Republican over recent years, with an influx of more liberal retirees from the north-east joining the more conservative Midwesterners, Ms MacManus said.

"It's often true in politics that after a few years of tumultuous activities, disaster or political brouhaha, people are just looking for someone who's a bit calmer," she told The National  from her home in Tampa, Florida.

“Biden supporters in Florida are looking for a calming effect, someone to unite the country.”

But Ms Coburn and Ms Wineman did appear to be a minority in The Villages.

There were many more Trump lawn signs, T-shirts and buttons on display around Lake Sumter Landing Market Square on a humid afternoon this week.

Ernest Rinaldi, 77, a former mechanical engineer who was walking Gracie, a miniature schnauzer, said Mr Trump’s base among older voters remained strong.

The president’s handling of Covid-19 was “no worse than other countries around the globe", Mr Rinaldi said.

“I hate that he's not diplomatic enough," he said. "I wish he kept his mouth shut a lot of the time.

“But look at his accomplishments as a businessman and what he’s done for the country. I’m anxious about the liberal direction the Democrats would take us in.”