United States President Donald Trump’s path to re-election runs through places like Sun City Center, a former cow pasture south of Tampa, Florida, that is now home to a booming retirement community. But some residents in this conservative swath of America’s premier political battleground are growing restless.
Irvin Hilts is among them. The 72-year-old retiree voted for Trump in 2016 but has grown frustrated with the tumult surrounding his administration. His support for Trump collapsed entirely during the coronavirus pandemic, which Hilts blames the president for mishandling.
“I don’t think Donald Trump is doing a very good job at all,” Hilts said. “Changes his mind too often, leaving too much up to the states when the federal government should be handling more of it.”
Such sentiment could damage Trump’s bid to keep the White House. Trump has virtually no path to victory without winning Florida, and older voters are key to that effort. Older voters make up an outsize share of the voting population in the state, where Trump defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by just over 1 percentage point in 2016. Trump carried voters 65 and older in the state by 9 percentage points, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
Some Republicans warn that could be tough for Trump to repeat as the public health and economic fallout of the pandemic deepens.
“They were willing to look past his tweets and consider their 401(k)s,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who advised Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “That message worked until the pandemic caused the market crash.”
Another public poll, this one by @FloridaAtlantic shows Biden ahead of Trump in Florida but within the margin of error and apparently with little confidence that the number will hold (a safe bet for any top line 6 months out from Election Day) pic.twitter.com/wbxiErE0IN
— David Smiley (@NewsbySmiley) May 15, 2020
Any erosion of support among seniors could doom Trump if this November’s election is as close as four years ago. A trio of Midwestern battlegrounds – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – feature sizeable ageing populations. Arizona, another state that Democrats hope to flip in 2020, is home to a growing number of retirees.
But as is often the case during close elections, it could all come down to Florida. Some recent polls from the state put Trump at a 10-point disadvantage – others put the race much narrower – to his presumptive challenger, Joe Biden, and Trump’s team is said to be keenly aware the deficit.
In a series of recent meetings, top advisers briefed the president that he was currently losing the race to Biden and urged him to discontinue his daily taskforce briefings. Trump protested, citing high TV ratings, but aides said that seniors, the largest viewing group, were being increasingly unsettled by the president’s erratic behaviour, false theories and fights with reporters.
In Biden, the 73-year-old Trump is facing a rival who has also shown strength among seniors. The Democrat, who is 77, won the support of 55 percent of Democratic voters age 65 and older, according to AP VoteCast surveys conducted in 17 states during this year’s primaries. No other Democrat earned more than 14 percent support from this group.
Trump’s campaign is focusing on driving Biden’s negatives up and plans to release a new ad campaign this week. But there are questions about whether such efforts will be as effective this year as they were in 2016 against Clinton.
“One of the reasons Trump did well with seniors in 2016 was because a lot of seniors really disliked Clinton,” Conant said. “He needs to make Biden as disliked.”
And some voters, like Hilts, have those doubts about Biden. As he waited outside a barber shop to get his hair cut for the first time in weeks, Hilts shook his head. While he is not voting for Trump, he’s not sure he will vote for Biden, either. It will depend on who he picks as vice president.
“I might just sit it out, based on the lesser of two evils,” he said.