TALLAHASSEE — Stephen Staruch is exactly the kind of voter that gave Donald Trump a 17-point advantage over Hillary Clinton in exit polling among older voters in Florida four years ago.
The lifelong Republican who has retired to the state’s largest retirement community, The Villages, says he voted for Trump four years ago because it was “more of a vote against Clinton.” As a retired UPS executive, he had hope for Trump because his life experience taught him that people “often grow into the job and mature; if you surround them by the right team of people, they’re going to become a good leader, especially if they’re good business people.”
But Staruch’s high hopes were quickly dashed, he said this week. “Right around inauguration time when he started lying about the crowds, I had buyer’s remorse.”
Now, Staruch, 67, is voting for Biden “to get democracy back and the rule of law,” and he’s speaking out about it to anyone who will listen. “I feel that same sense of obligation that I did when I was 17 and joined the military during Vietnam. It’s like, that’s what people do because this is our country.”
Polls now show that because of voters like Staruch, Florida’s seniors who traditionally vote at higher rates than any other age group, have shifted in significant numbers away from President Donald Trump to former vice president Joe Biden.
The University of North Florida Public Opinion Research Lab released a poll of likely voters on Oct. 6, and while Biden was leading Trump among likely Florida voters 51 percent to 45 percent, the margin among voters older than 65 was 50 percent for Trump and 47 percent for Biden. Those same people were asked how they voted years ago, and the margin was much larger, 14 points in Trump’s favor.
A Quinnipiac poll released Oct. 7 found even wider margins with voters age 65 and older. Biden was ahead of Trump 55 percent to 40 percent among Florida voters over age 65, the widest margin of any age group except 18- to 34-year-olds where Biden led with a margin of 23 percentage points. Older voters have a more favorable opinion of Biden over Trump by 20 percentage points, according to the survey conducted after the presidential debate.
The trend seems to be happening across the nation. In the last month, a CNN poll found Biden leading Trump by 21 points — 60 percent to 39 percent — among likely voters 65 and older. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reported an even larger margin.
The Pew Research Center estimates that Trump beat Clinton by nine percentage points among voters 65 and older four years ago. By comparison, John McCain carried the senior vote by eight points in 2008, and George W. Bush had only a four-point advantage in 2004.
Why are these numbers notable?
Trump won Florida by just over 113,000 votes in 2016 but won senior voters by nearly 330,000. Because of the electoral map, Trump’s campaign considers Florida a must-win state for his re-election, so a significant drop in senior voting will require a requisite increase in another group.
"Nobody believes that seniors are going to come out and vote 70 percent for Biden,'' said Michael Binder, who conducted the (University of North Florida) poll and has done similar work for the New York Times and Sienna polls.
“But I certainly think it’s reasonable that those numbers will be different than they were in 2016. You have to believe there are people who voted for Donald Trump because they were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and his name wasn’t Clinton, but Biden doesn’t have those heavy negatives.”
Mike Madrid, a pollster with the anti-Trump political committee, The Lincoln Project said that the shift in Florida could play out where Biden enjoys significant support among senior voters above the historical numbers while Trump receives support of more Hispanic voters than Republicans presidential candidates have seen in the past.
"What’s happening is the Democrat is getting the base Republican vote, and the Republican is getting the base Democrat vote and the numbers are essentially the same number, which is going to put them both in the same range,'' he said.
Republican and many independent voters 65 and older have been central to Trump’s base, as evidenced by the numerous trips to The Villages by Gov. Ron DeSantis, and other top surrogates for the president in the state. Vice President Mike Pence visited there Saturday.
Chris Stanley, the Democratic Party leader in the Villages, says she is reluctant to put much stock in the polls, which in 2016 under counted white voters with no college education who overwhelmingly voted for Trump.
"I’m ignoring the polls this year because, yes, Florida is gonna be a 1 percent state. It’s always been a 1 percent state,'' Stanley said.
But she, too, has watched the shift among her neighbors, most of whom are Republicans.
"We’ll get 50 to 100 people through the door, depending on what the outrageous tweet of the day was,'' she said. "We have had a steady influx of Republicans, and they’re funny when they come in. They announce, ‘I am a Republican. I’m staying a Republican.’ And then they say, ‘What can I do to help you get rid of that, so and so, in the White House?’ "
While she hears from many they are dissatisfied by Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, they are more concerned about the possibility that Trump will eliminate the payroll tax, which funds Social Security, after he issued an executive order in August that deferred paying the tax for businesses hurt by the pandemic.
"It’s kind of touching,'' Stanley said. “It’s the danger to their kids and their fear their kids won’t have a retirement that’s driving people to my door.”
Michele Yergin, 70, a former Republican from Ponte Vedra Beach, said she voted for Trump in 2016 because “I thought that he was a great businessman” but she increasingly became turned off by what she considers "his narcissistic behavior,'' how he treated women, how he would “fire anybody who would stand up against him,” and “how he puts people at risk for COVID.”
"It was just one thing after another, and it still hasn’t stopped,'' she said. She said she now has registered without a party affiliation and is supporting Biden “because he has good common sense and he will surround himself with people who can make good sound decisions.”
Nancy Detert, a long-time Republican state senator who is now serving on the Sarasota County Commission in a part of the state long known for its conservative politics, said that the senior voters she speaks to haven’t wavered from four years ago.
"Those voters are exactly the same as they were before, and Trump is just as controversial,'' she said. “The more chaos and the more they are for Trump.” She also notes, these same voters, “don’t forget to show up on Election Day.”
She is skeptical that voters are being honest with pollsters, and she predicts the race in Florida is going to be as close as it was 20 years ago when Florida was forced to launch a recount to determine if George W. Bush or Al Gore won.
"We’re looking at the year 2000 all over again,'' Detert said. “Anybody who thinks Florida is shifting, it’s not going to happen. It’s going to be tied.”
But Eleanor Sobel, another former state senator who represented Hollywood as a Democrat, said she has been spending hours each day making calls to senior voters as a member of the Florida Leadership Council for Biden, a phone bank effort led by Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, best known for the musical group, Sha-Na-Na.
Sobel said she has spoken to hundreds of seniors across the state who have received ballots "and I’ve had many of them tell me they voted for Trump and now they are voting for Biden,'' she said. “They say they’re fed up.”
Bob White, a staunch Trump supporter from Merritt Island and former Liberty Party candidate for governor, also doesn’t believe the polls.
"To me the president’s doing better here among that age group than he was four years ago,'' White said. “We have a Trump Victory headquarters opened on Merritt Island on a former car dealership and they’re constantly busy — registering people to vote, switching Democrats to Republican for the first time, organizing boat parades and rallies. I don’t trust any of these polls.”
He also assesses the race by the level of enthusiasm.
"It’s one thing to tell a pollster where you’re at and it’s another thing to turn out on Election Day,'' White said. “If this is a base election, Donald Trump’s base is clearly going to turn out. The enthusiasm for him is off the charts. Every time you turn around there’s another event with 300 trucks and motorcycles or 1,000 boats. I just don’t see it on the Biden side.”
Staruch and Stanley, however, said that in The Villages, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than a two-to-one margin, the energy among Democrats is higher than it’s ever been.
On Wednesday, The Villages Democratic Club organized a golf cart rally to drive vote-by-mail ballots to the Sumter County Supervisor of Elections office, and it grew to the largest parade of the year, with people lining the streets waving flags along the route.
"I thought we’d be about 100 golf carts and we had 400,'' Stanley said. “We filled two drop boxes with our ballots.”
Pollsters told the Times/Herald a primary reason for the shift appears to be the pandemic and the president’s handling of it. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 150,000 of the 199,000 confirmed U.S. virus deaths through Oct. 3 have occurred among people 65 or older.
“Senior citizens are a very high-risk group,” said Binder of the University of North Florida. “They are some of the most vulnerable in our whole country. And when you have somebody not necessarily taking it as seriously as they should, flouting their own advice from their own CDC, it’s pretty clear, some of those folks that are concerned about this — maybe they’ve lost friends and loved ones and things of that nature.”
The University of North Florida poll asked people what they say is a bigger concern: the pandemic, or the economic impact. Senior voters who said that public health is their top concern were 80 percent in support of Biden. Of the people polled who said the economic impact was most important, 89 percent were for Trump.
"I mean these are like partisan registration numbers,'' Binder said.
As for Staruch, he has taken his “sense of purpose” to speak out about his Trump defection so seriously he has been interviewed by CNN, the New York Times, and journalists from French and Danish news organizations, and he lets them know: "The party I knew doesn’t exist anymore,'' he said. “Republicans like the John McCains of the world and others who came before him were the fiscal conservatives, but now we’re a country that’s $27 trillion in the hole. That’s not fiscal restraint.”
He compares it to getting his wheels realigned.
"I’ve got to do something fairly radical, where it’s not just pumping air into them, but I’ve got to take it into the shop,'' Staruch said. “We have to get our democracy realigned. It is so out of balance that it’s going to require a pretty strong shift to the left in order to correct that. And that means for years to come.”
(Editor’s note: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of the story included an incorrect estimate of U.S. virus deaths among those 65 and older. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 150,000 of the 199,000 confirmed U.S. virus deaths through Oct. 3 were those above 65.)
Tampa Bay Times elections coverage
Voter guide is coming soon: The Tampa Bay Times will publish a special election section Sunday, Oct. 18 with information on local races. You can also access our Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide beginning Sunday, Oct. 11.
FELONY CONVICTION? Here are Florida’s rules for registering to vote.
POSTAL SERVICE CONCERNS: What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?
HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on voter registration deadlines, rules for voting by mail and more.
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.