THE VILLAGES — Mortgage papers under his arm, Larry Kazee walked out of the bank and into the blazing Florida sun, a step closer to joining the stampede.
“We’ve come here to live, not die,” said Kazee, 71, an Air Force veteran from Kentucky who plans to spend his days fishing for bass. His wife, Alta, looks forward to the weather and being close to family members who already made the move. “It’s just unique,” she said.
For several consecutive years, The Villages has been the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States, drawing retirees to an area northwest of Orlando with endless recreation, relative affordability and an almost jarring level of cleanliness and order. Now more than 124,000 people live in the metro area.
The Villages proper has soared from 8,300 residents in 2000 to more than 66,000 today, with a median age of 67. There are two Republicans for every Democrat.
The storyline is well known and regularly draws wide-eyed news media reports laced with Viagra and “Disney for Adults” references.
Yet over time, the explosive growth has fueled a remarkable, somewhat under-the-radar demographic trend that is playing an increasingly key role in the country’s most prized swing state.
Overwhelmingly white and Republican, The Villages and surrounding areas have offset the rise in Hispanic residents in Central Florida, part of the vaunted I-4 corridor where elections are decided. In a state with a history of bitterly close elections, small shifts matter greatly and this one played a key role in Donald Trump’s narrow victory.
“He’s a real person, not a politician,” said 72-year-old Terry Machul, a former home builder in Illinois who moved here in 2011. “I started a business, worked hard and made something out of it.”
The torrent of newcomers like the Kazees, who voted for Trump in Kentucky, are poised to keep the GOP competitive.
“It was important to us that this was a Republican area. We have conservative values,” said Efie Mercer, who moved from Arizona in August with her husband, paying $229,000 for a villa across the street from a grocery store and near a recreation center. “Every one of our neighbors is brand new,” she said, marveling at the thought.
Next election, Mercer hopes to cast her first vote as a Floridian for Trump. “We love this man,” she said, sitting with friends at an outdoor bar and sipping a Coke. “He’s a personality, of course, but everyone knew that.”
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Nearby Orlando is the fastest-growing media market in the state and the city and surrounding areas have gotten increasingly diverse. From 2006-16, more than 99,000 Hispanics registered as Democrats while 8,700 did so as Republicans. Now, waves of Puerto Ricans leaving the hurricane-devastated island could accelerate the boom.
Hillary Clinton did significantly better than Barack Obama four years ago in the urban Orlando core — Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties — roughly 70,000 more votes.
But the GOP advantage in surrounding counties grew by even more.
Volusia County, which Obama won by nearly 14,000 votes in 2008, favored Trump by 34,000 votes, according to an analysis by Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who ran Obama’s 2008 Florida campaign.
Then there is the continued growth of Villages, which sits in Sumter, Lake and Marion counties. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the three counties by 76,000 votes. In 2016, Trump won by 115,000.
“For all the demographic trends that are positive for Democrats in the Orlando media market, there is a counterbalancing — the fast growing and fast evolving conservative-leaning white populations in the counties that surround it,” Schale said.
“For every percent you lose among white voters, you have to win about four points more among Hispanics because whites are about four times the size of the Hispanic vote in Florida.”
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Covering more than 34 square miles, The Villages is now bigger than Manhattan. Formerly cow pastures and watermelon fields, it began in the 1970s as a mobile home park, Orange Blossom Gardens, which beckoned northerners with free golf. H. Gary Morse, son of the developer, transformed it into a behemoth using tax-free municipal bonds, becoming a billionaire in the process.
Before his death in 2014, Morse had become one of the top Republican campaign contributors in the country and The Villages a crucial campaign stop for candidates. Trump did not visit last year but Mike Pence showed up for a rally and urged residents to whip up the vote. “Get on a golf cart, for crying out loud,” he said.
Not that they needed encouragement. Turnout here regularly tops 80 percent, outpacing the overall state rate.
Morse’s family still controls just about every aspect of life here, including the GOP-friendly Daily Sun newspaper, which is so thick with furniture, health care and restaurant ads it would be the envy of struggling industry counterparts. The family has resumed political giving, including $250,000 for Trump’s inauguration and $100,000 to a super PAC run by Gov. Rick Scott.
Months after the election, there are few traces of politics, aside from the occasional Trump bumper sticker on a golf cart. You can get lost driving through the maze of streets and roundabouts that connect vast tracts of homes and recreation centers, where residents engage in everything from Chinese painting to ukulele jam sessions.
The commercial centers are dotted with clothing shops and restaurants while outdoor speakers play hits from the Eagles and other soft rock bands. On a recent afternoon, a radio ad pitched a medical marijuana information session.
“We looked all over the eastern United States and this was the only place you can get everything you need without leaving,” said Phil Barefoot, 70, who moved four years ago from Delaware. He had his cart parked on a street one afternoon and had just lit a cigar after a round of golf. His wife, he explained, has vision problems but can get anywhere on a cart.
Barefoot voted for Trump because he’s a businessman and promised to “drain the swamp.” Months after the election, Barefoot said that’s been more challenging than promised and he’s disappointed in the lack of compromise between the two parties. He’s got some advice for the president, too: Stay off Twitter.
“Just get the hell off it,” he said, quickly adding, “But I think that’s what got him as far as he did in the election.”
That was one of few complaints from residents about Trump’s performance. Many said they liked Trump’s tough talk toward North Korea and dismissed questions about Russia as Democratic whining.
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John and Anna Hodak, in their early 70s, came in 2009 from Democratic stronghold California, where they ran a print shop and didn’t pay much attention to politics. They bought their home here sight unseen, convinced by friends who had already moved.
“Now we’re definitely Republicans,” Mrs. Hodak said from their cart parked near Panera Bread. She said she didn’t like Clinton, especially after the comment about some Trump supporters being “deplorables” — a label some in The Villages embraced as they covered their carts with campaign signs and paraded through the streets.
“Hopefully the Democrats have learned we’re not dumb people,” said Edie Miller, 68, who moved from Pittsburgh six years ago with her husband Dan, a former electric company worker. They sat on a bench in a town square as a man with a guitar played country songs to a small crowd. A few people danced.
Across the square, every seat was filled at an outdoor bar, where gin and tonics go for $2.75 all day. Everyone was white (98 percent of the population is) except for one black man, who said he lives outside the Villages but likes to frequent, though he doesn’t share the politics.
Democrats live here but maintain a lower profile, outnumbered 2-to-1, more so if right-leaning independents are counted. After Clinton’s loss, Democrats nationally bemoaned their sliding grip on the kind of white voters flocking to The Villages.
But the GOP faces its own issues for relying so heavily on white voters in a diversifying country and a state like Florida.
“The Republican Party is becoming an all-white party, unfortunately,” said GOP strategist Mark Zubaly of Tallahassee. “We need to wake up to that,” he added. “Eventually the rush of baby boomers from the north will end.”
Until then, the newcomers will continue to fuel Florida’s dynamic political map.
“It’s mindboggling how quickly this has grown,” said Villages resident Bill Garner, who ran Trump’s campaign in Sumter County. “People who live here are looking out for their children. They know our country is in horrible, horrible shape. I told everyone that Trump is the only one with the brains to bring it back.”