Trump losing ground among retirees in must-win Florida

·4 min read

Jim Farr is a staunch 77-year-old Republican in the sunny southern state of Florida, which lures retirees from all over America -- a powerful political bloc.  

As the country's presidential election draws nearer, Farr dislikes the idea of voting for a Democrat. But the idea of giving President Donald Trump another term irks him even more.

Farr, who lives in Kissimmee in the central part of the state, is a devout Christian who considers abortion akin to "murdering babies" and believes in what he calls compassionate capitalism. He says it is not the Republican party that has lost a supporter -- the president has.

"He does not seem to care for truth. Truth is very important to me. He does not check facts," said Farr, who is disappointed with the man he voted for in 2016.

Add what Farr sees as Trump's me-first agenda, blinding pride that blocks him from listening to advisers and his awful handling of the coronavirus pandemic? The Floridian said those issues mean he will probably do the once-unthinkable: vote for Democrat Joe Biden in November.

"He seems to be an acceptable person," said Farr.

Farr is not alone: There are signs that more and more retirees in this must-win state who voted for Trump in 2016 are considering dumping him in the upcoming election.

Polls give Biden a slight edge over Trump among older voters, but that lead could be fragile -- just three points in a Quinnipiac survey released on July 23.

"There is smoke that suggests some folks could turn to Biden. Particularly around his handling of COVID-19," said Michael Binder, a professor of political science at the University of North Florida.

That's a big problem for Trump -- older voters are the demographic that gave him the win in Florida in the last election. In 2016, 57 percent of Florida voters over age 65 cast their ballots for Trump.

The other snag for the president is that his staunchest followers in Florida are the ones hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Around 20.5 percent of Florida's 21 million people are age 65 or older. Historically, it has had a higher proportion of elderly residents than any other US state.

In Florida, of the more than 8,700 people who have died of COVID-19, 83 percent were above age 65, according to the state health department.

Farr said that when Trump gives himself sky-high grades for his handling of the once-in-a-century health crisis -- which he is widely accused of botching -- "it would be a joke if it were funny. But it isn't."

"He does not give a feeling of having a coherent plan," said Farr.

- The pandemic changed Florida -

Randy Pestana, an expert in electoral politics at Florida International University, said of the turn toward Biden among older Floridians, "I genuinely do believe it's a trend." And he said the pandemic is a factor.

"If you look at older voters who are most vulnerable to COVID impacts health-wise, they're starting to see that the response has not been good and now their economy is not doing good, their retirement is not doing good," said Pestana.

"And oh, by the way, their health is really at risk," he added.

- Trump needs Florida badly -

"A lot of Republicans that voted for Trump are just sick of it. They're tired. Every day is something new, every day is another tweet," said Pestana.

US Congressman Ted Deutch, a Democrat who represents a Florida district with one of the heaviest concentrations of retirees, told AFP that "for every issue that seniors care about, Donald Trump’s policies have been disastrous."

"His failure to respond to the pandemic has been deadly for older Americans," said Deutch. 

Elections in Florida are famously hard to predict and tend to be decided by very thin margins that keep the rest of the country on tenterhooks.

That means every vote counts. Voters switching party allegiances, even in small numbers, can make a huge difference. 

Hardly anyone forgets that a margin of 537 votes in Florida proved decisive in sending George W. Bush to the White House in his presidential battle against Al Gore in 2000.

"I wouldn’t expect a mass exodus of older white Republican voters abandoning Trump, but even a small change could impact the outcome," said Binder.

Because of the quirks of the US presidential voting system, the winner in a state's popular vote takes all of its electoral votes, no matter the margin of victory. That means Trump needs the 29 electoral votes assigned to Florida to hang onto his job.  

The Trump campaign insists that Trump followers remain loyal and the president is "leading an enthusiastic and unified Republican party."