Some Older Voters Shift to Biden in Florida. Will It Be Enough for Him?

FORT MYERS, Fla. — For Joseph R. Biden Jr. to capture Florida, he would need a lot of voters like Dave Niederkorn, a retired businessman who cast his ballot for President Trump four years ago and soon came to regret it.

And like Gerry Miller, a retiree who wrote in his own name for president in 2016 to protest the choice between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton and is appalled by how Mr. Trump has handled the coronavirus pandemic.

Both say they voted for Mr. Biden in the unlikeliest of places: Southwest Florida, a Republican bastion that has helped elect Republican candidates in election after election and was pivotal for Mr. Trump in 2016. Switch voters know that they are rare finds, though they have recently shown up in polling and sporadic interviews.

Whether Florida’s older voters will shift away from the president in large numbers remains unknown, in a state filled with many unknowns. Even if only some retirees change allegiances to vote for Mr. Biden, that could be enough to swing Florida, which is why that prospect is so tantalizing for Democrats and a subject of fixation for the two candidates.

But while siphoning off older voters from Mr. Trump is viewed as perhaps the best path to victory for Mr. Biden in Florida, the enthusiasm for the president in Fort Myers shows how difficult that feat might be.

In 2016, Mr. Trump won Lee County, home to Fort Myers, and Collier County to the south, home to Naples, by formidable double-digit margins.

On a recent weekday morning, the line at a downtown early voting site popular with retirees was between 60 and 90 minutes long, with nearly every person willing to be interviewed saying they had voted for Mr. Trump.

Four years ago, David Allgood, 60, briefly hesitated before voting for Mr. Trump “because he was an unknown quantity,” he said after casting his vote in a strip mall next to a Robb & Stucky furniture store.

Now? “I’m a Trump man,” Mr. Allgood said.

ImageVoters waiting in line last week in Fort Myers, Fla. In 2016, Mr. Trump won Lee County, home to Fort Myers, and Collier County to the south, home to Naples, by formidable double-digit margins.
Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

Older voters make up a crucial electoral demographic in Florida, where more than a quarter of the population is over the age of 60. National and state polls show that Mr. Biden has made inroads with them, including with voters age 65 and older, who typically vote Republican.

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Especially notable are older Floridians who skipped the last presidential election but have cast ballots this year. New voters tend to be younger. But this year, more Florida voters age 65 and older who did not vote in 2016 have voted than new voters age 30 and younger, “which is just wild,” said Tom Bonier, the chief executive of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm. Those older voters tended to be registered Democratic, Mr. Bonier said.

“We generally don’t think of senior voters as a surge group,” Mr. Bonier said. “There are a lot of seniors in Florida who stayed home in 2016 — for whatever reason, I’m not even sure what to attribute it to — but we’re seeing them come out now.”

In Southwest Florida, older voters who have shifted to Mr. Biden are not keen on advertising their views to neighbors, friends and family who still stand by the president.

“I probably have friends of mine that wouldn’t speak to me again,” said Mr. Miller, 71, who lives with his wife in a beachfront condo in Naples.

Mr. Miller, a retiree from Wisconsin who considers himself a moderate Republican, said he could not bring himself to vote for Mr. Trump in 2016. “I knew what he was — it didn’t take a rocket scientist,” he said.

This year, the pandemic crystallized his decision to vote for a Democrat for president for the first time.

“He’s not a national leader,’’ he said of Mr. Trump, “and he’s not a strategic thinker, and at the time that the country needs strong leadership, in probably the worst crisis that we’ve experienced since World War II, his leadership has absolutely failed. For me, at 71, it’s stealing a lot of the percentage of my remaining life.”

Mr. Niederkorn, a 77-year-old widower, lives with his dog, Roscoe, in a gated retirement community in Estero, about 20 miles south of Fort Myers. He voted for Mr. Trump with reservations in 2016.

But his disgust with Mr. Trump built quickly, especially over family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border and during the pandemic. He said he had stopped talking to a good friend because they disagreed over politics. Now, he is a registered Democrat.

“When the coronavirus hit, he turned it all over to the governors, and I thought that was the stupidest thing,” he said of Mr. Trump. “That’s why you have the federal government. But no, he went, ‘That’s not my job,’ and he sends it out to the governors. To me, that was just totally unforgivable.”

Support for Mr. Biden among older voters has been perhaps most widely chronicled in The Villages, the vast Central Florida retirement community where Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have campaigned to robust crowds, in spite of the potential for spreading the coronavirus among a high-risk population. A small group of Democrats in The Villages has garnered international attention for its golf cart caravans to rival the ones in support of Mr. Trump.

Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

In Fort Myers and Naples on the southwest coast, it remains uncertain how much Mr. Biden can increase his support. The local congressman, Representative Francis Rooney, a Republican from Naples, is himself an older voter who has at times been critical of Mr. Trump, though he endorsed him in 2016. Though Mr. Rooney is not seeking re-election, he has declined to say if he plans to vote for the president again.

“I just don’t want to say,” he said in an interview last week. “I’ve said a lot of things that I think about the candidates. I’ve said a lot of things I think about the vice president. He’s really strong, and he’s a really good guy, and he’s a decent human being. And I’ve met him a few times, and his key people are really good people — and that’s probably enough to say.”

There are signs that Mr. Trump’s base is turning out in a big way again: Already, the turnout in both counties as of Friday was among the highest in the state, 70 percent in Collier and 61 percent in Lee. (The highest was 75 percent, in Sumter, which includes most of The Villages.)

That Mr. Trump will again win all of those counties, where many people are transplants from the Midwest, is not in doubt. Democrats are banking on more of their voters casting ballots in more places — amounting to a percentage point or two increase in each county dominated by Republicans — to grow their share statewide.

“We know that we need counties like Miami-Dade and Palm Beach and Broward and Orange to turn out Democratic voters, but we’re playing defense,” said Annisa Karim, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Collier County, which Mr. Trump won by 26 percentage points in 2016.

In Lee County, which Mr. Trump won by 20 points, Jim Rosinus, 68, the vice-chairman of the Democratic Party, said he stopped counting the number of volunteers this year after it reached 1,000. In 2016, that number was about 200, he said. The party’s crammed office space features a framed portrait of former President Barack Obama, a cutout of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and $5 sunglasses — “Joe aviators.”

Among the people picking up Biden-Harris yard signs one day last week was Ava Roeder, a 69-year-old retired art teacher originally from upstate New York. (“I went to Woodstock,” she said.) Earlier in the campaign, she said she bought 10 yard signs for $10 apiece, parked her car with her trunk popped and gave them away to neighbors. She was surprised by the interest.

Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

“People aren’t divulging necessarily who they’re going to vote for,” Ms. Roeder said. That morning at the eye doctor, she had seen another patient with a Biden-Harris baseball cap.

“I said to him, ‘I like your cap,’” she said. “And then someone said to him, ‘I like it, too.’”

The excitement is even more palpable, however, among Republicans.

Last week, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, rallied supporters at an outdoor venue just east of Interstate 75 in Lee County. Thrilled fans left with big smiles, posing for photographs and gabbing with other attendees. Only some wore masks. Almost all said they had no qualms about how the president handled the pandemic.

“I just like the energy of this crowd,” said Gail Mount, 68, of Port Charlotte. “They’re just very upbeat people.”

At the Republican Party headquarters in Fort Myers, nestled in a strip mall between a pizza place and an escape room, Doris Cortese, the party’s 81-year-old vice chairwoman, sported a red, white and blue manicure with the letters T-R-U-M-P spelled out on her nails.

Ms. Cortese said people of all ages had volunteered — “We’re getting millennials!” she said — and predicted that retiree support for Mr. Trump would grow, not diminish.

“I’m in the office four days a week, and we’re getting more and more seniors,” she said. “The fact that Trump is going to lower prescription prices” — a goal he touted in Fort Myers this month — “that’s a big one with seniors, because some of them almost have to make a choice between eating and having their medicine.”

Ms. Cortese dismissed the polls indicating that some older voters had moved toward Mr. Biden. “We’re not seeing that here at all,” she said.

Annie Brown contributed reporting.

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