Could Donald Trump’s fate in Florida be decided by this retirement village? Some analysts think so

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Donald Trump’s future as the President of the United States could come down to what happens in one community of senior citizens in central Florida.

Among nearly 700 holes of golf, 60,000 golf carts and 12 country clubs, more than 130,000 people live what appears to be a very pleasant existence.

There are three town squares, cinemas and Sunday sessions at RJ Gator’s.

Pastel-coloured homes and moss-covered oak trees line neat cul-de-sacs, while golf carts with “for sale” signs are parked on the lawn.

A palm tree-lined street in Florida A palm tree-lined street in Florida
About 130,000 people call The Villages retirement community in Florida home.(ABC News: Emily Clark)

This is The Villages — a sprawling haven for retirees and a big part of why so many move to Florida. And for the past four years, this has been a Trump stronghold.

But as the 2020 campaigns turn towards the finish line, The Villages is quickly becoming the subject of intense political analysis.

The local Republican and Democrat leaders are being contacted daily by US and international media and are very aware of just how many eyes are on them.

Both Mr Trump and Joe Biden have both been campaigning in Florida recently, trying to shore up the seniors vote, but it may not be an easy task for the President.

A woman wearing a t-shirt reading 'I'm a Trump girl'A woman wearing a t-shirt reading 'I'm a Trump girl'
While many residents at The Village are supporters of the President, others are giving Joe Biden a second look.(ABC News: Niall Lenihan)

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the US and the economy remains suspended by uncertainty, several national polls indicate a collapse in support for Mr Trump among senior voters.

This group was a massive help to Mr Trump in 2016, so recent polls that say he’s now losing older voters by more than 20 percentage points are a heavy blow to his re-election hopes.

Mr Trump didn’t help matters last week when he tweeted a photo of his political opponent, which appeared to mock older Americans.

It was considered an astonishing move given his sliding support among that very group.

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It’s a pretty stark national picture, but on the ground in Florida, particularly in The Villages, any shift away from Mr Trump can be harder to see.

Grace Loew, 75, lives in The Villages and believes the President will win easily because “Florida is Trump”.

“When we lived in Chicago, it was a different story, but here … support is very strong,” she said.

Both Grace and her partner Jerry never planned on moving to The Villages. They had their bags packed and were on their way to Colombia, but like so many, they ended up staying.

That’s one of the things that makes The Villages so interesting — no-one is really from here, everyone has moved to the community and brought their ideals with them.

Ms Loew said she wished she could “staple his mouth shut”, but ultimately Mr Trump still had her vote.

Donald Trump needs to win The Villages ‘two-to-one’

The scale of The Villages cannot be understated. The retirement community sits across more than 50 square kilometres and crosses three counties. It’s not just an address, but a region on the map.

Chris Stanley is the head of The Villages’ Democratic club and is pragmatic about how the vote here is going to go.

A woman with grey hair in a t-shirt reading "hate has no home here!'A woman with grey hair in a t-shirt reading "hate has no home here!'
Chris Stanley expects The Villages to vote Republican, but not with the same enthusiasm as in 2016.(ABC News: Emily Clark)

“So, The Villages is going to vote Republican, it’s a numbers game ultimately,” she said.

“And The Villages is going to go for Trump, but it’s not going to go by the same percentage that it did in 2016 and that’s why we’re getting so much attention right now.”

Ms Stanley said every week people will walk into her modest campaign office and proclaim: “I am a Republican.”

“They step in and say ‘I’m a Republican and I’m staying a Republican. What can I do to help you get rid of Trump?'”

While the seniors vote might be moving away from Mr Trump in a big way on a national stage, here in The Villages, Ms Stanley says the swing is smaller, but the fact it’s happening at all is significant.

A self-confessed “election data nerd”, Ms Stanley said she estimated the drop in support for Mr Trump in The Villages to be about 6 per cent.

“That’s a lot of votes that will go to the state-wide average for Joe Biden, and in a 1 per cent state like Florida, that could be instrumental.”

The professional data crunchers are watching The Villages closely too.

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Dave Wasserman from The Cook Political Report tweeted last week: “if Trump doesn’t win Sumter County (The Villages) at least two-to-one, he’s not winning Florida or a second term.”

There is no doubt there are more voters registered as Republicans than Democrats in the tri-county area that covers The Villages, but whether or not Mr Trump will win residents over by a two-to-one margin remains to be seen.

Trump supporter and Villages resident Carmine Bravo said: “I don’t know any seniors who are changing their mind.”

“I think people flocked to him because they wanted someone to talk to them in a language they could understand,” he said.

And in terms of Mr Trump’s handling of COVID-19, Mr Bravo said the President has done “about as good as anyone could possibly do”.

“When they first learned about it and they knew the source of it, he didn’t hesitate. He closed down the travel and closed down the borders,” he said.

“He set up hospitals, he set up equipment. He got researchers and scientists going.”

Trouble in paradise

In a moment when opposition to Mr Trump inside The Villages was on display, a convoy of an estimated 500 golf carts delivered ballots for Mr Biden to the nearby election office.

A golf cart parked on the side of the road covered in Biden-Harris campaign signs A golf cart parked on the side of the road covered in Biden-Harris campaign signs
The Democrat supporters who live in The Villages are hoping to make a huge dent in Donald Trump’s vote.(ABC News: Emily Clark)

Just days later, Vice-President Mike Pence was in town and attracted a crowd of a reported 1,000 people for a campaign speech in The Villages.

In a place where golf carts are literal vehicles for political statements, tensions are running high.

The Villages resident Lyn Mckenzie, 65, said the politics could make The Villages a difficult place to live.

“I love living here. I love the beauty, I love everything about it really, except for that,” she said.

“Once you find people that are like you, then it makes it even better and you just try to ignore those other people because they’re everywhere.”

Ms Mckenzie is one of several residents who park on the side of the road, campaigning for Mr Biden. She said she’s used to going against the grain and has always lived in Republican strongholds.

A woman sits on a golf cart wearing a Biden Harris 2020 badge A woman sits on a golf cart wearing a Biden Harris 2020 badge
Lyn Mckenzie is campaigning hard for Joe Biden in The Villages.(ABC News: Emily Clark)

As horns from passing cars sound in support, she raises her hand to wave and her voice to speak over them and says: “It’s turning.”

Ms Stanley said the result here would be “very close”.

“It’s going to be a squeaker,” she said.

The result in Florida may not be known on the night, but the community will be closely watched, because as Ms Stanley says: “As the Villages votes, so goes the country’.

An older man in a USS Missouri navy cap next to his golf cart with a Biden-Harris sign in the windowAn older man in a USS Missouri navy cap next to his golf cart with a Biden-Harris sign in the window
There are more Democrat campaign signs on display on the golf carts at The Villages than in previous elections.(ABC News: Emily Clark)

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