The most recent visits to Florida by President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence illustrate the reliance of the Republican ticket on two voting blocs seemingly headed in opposite political directions this election: seniors and Latinos.
Pence on Thursday stumped in Miami-Dade County with Hispanic voters who, compared to four years ago, have shown a greater willingness to bubble in Trump’s name on the ballot. The following day, Trump promised seniors in Fort Myers that a COVID-19 vaccine would be available first to seniors, who appear to be pulling back from the president amid the pandemic.
In must-win Florida, where tight margins can make even small shifts in voter sentiment consequential, the shifting balance between those two demographics could prove decisive as Trump faces off with Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
“I don’t know if there’s a more important two blocs in the state of Florida,” said Chuck Rocha, the Democratic political consultant behind the Latino outreach Nuestro PAC.
Four years after Trump won Florida by about 113,000 votes, polling suggests he’s lost support among senior voters and improved his standing among Latinos. Both the Trump and Biden campaigns continue to spend millions on TV and countless hours on the ground in the state attempting to bolster their standing and hurt their opponent with those two groups.
During the Fort Myers trip, Trump told a room of seniors that they “will be the first in line for the vaccine. And we will soon be ending this pandemic.”
“I’m moving heaven and earth to safeguard our seniors,” Trump said, “deliver life-saving therapies in record time, and to distribute a safe and effective vaccine before the end of the year.”
Trump, who according to exit polling won seniors by 17 percentage points in 2016 in Florida, appears this year to be struggling to win voters 65 and older by the same margin. He led Biden by 10 points in that group in a University of North Florida poll released Tuesday. Some national polls have found Biden ahead of Trump among older voters by a wide margin.
Any slippage with Florida’s seniors could doom Trump. Voters 65 and older comprised 35.5% of the electorate in 2016, according to the AARP.
“Even a small shift among this voter bloc has to be offset by a pretty significant increase across another voting bloc,” said Jeff Johnson, the Florida state director for the AARP. “If one of three votes is cast by someone 65 and over, it’s going to take a lot to make up for a one point or two point shift.”
The Trump campaign insists the president is doing better with seniors as Election Day grows closer. Pollster Brock McCleary said Monday during a call for Trump campaign staff that the president’s internal polling numbers are “on the rise” with older voters in Florida after recent efforts to reach out to seniors.
McCleary said he found a 19% increase in support among seniors for Trump in the Tampa media market “that has put our numbers on terrific footing.” On a different call on Oct. 12, with reporters, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien acknowledged that seniors were a weak point but said a new commercial attacking the 77-year-old Biden as a threat to safety net programs in Florida and other swing states would be effective.
“It’s been tested. It tests off the charts. Messaging that seniors want to see, and is being delivered to them,” he told a reporter. “Whatever perceived slippage you’re seeing in your numbers among seniors, I’m absolutely certain that it will be addressed.”
But if Trump can’t pull his numbers with seniors back to 2016 levels, he may have a cushion with Florida Latinos, who have shown less resistance to the president than they did four years ago.
Where a CNN exit poll found him losing the Latino vote by 38 points in 2016, some recent statewide surveys have found Trump behind Biden by half of that or less. Stepien, on the call with reporters, said he expects any loss of support by Trump since 2016 “to be offset by gains in certain voting populations — Black, Hispanic and others — based on the president’s appeal, policies and the outreach he’s been conducting for the last four years.”
Rocha, the Democratic consultant behind Nuestro PAC, said Trump’s spending on Spanish-language TV in Arizona and Florida and the lack of hard-line immigration rhetoric in his paid messaging reflects his need to win over a sector he used as a foil in 2016.
“He knows he doesn’t need to win all the Latino votes. He just needs to win a bigger percentage than he did last time to make up for the old, white votes he’s losing,” Rocha said. “That’s why you had one Cuban after another at the [Republican National Convention]. That’s why you literally had him naturalizing citizens at the RNC.”
Just as Trump must pull up his support among seniors, analysts believe Biden must improve his numbers with Hispanic voters — especially if Trump’s support among white voters remains strong.
Simulations of the Florida election run in September by Equis Research found that if Biden holds the same 41% support among white voters that top-of-ticket Democrats earned in 2018, Biden would need to pull 59% support among all Hispanic voters to win the state. And to hit those numbers, Biden needs to perform better with the 40% of Hispanic voters in Florida who are neither Cuban nor Puerto Rican.
Stephanie Valencia, president of Equis Research, said the firm’s polling found Biden stagnant in the high 50s with non-Cuban and non-Puerto Rican Hispanics from the end of August through early October.
“He needs to be closer to 70 with that group,” she said. “They’re deeply anti-Trump. But they’re not yet pro-Biden. If there’s a place where the Biden campaign and Democrats should be running up the score, it’s with those voters.”
Part of Biden’s struggle appears to be with Cuban Americans, but Equis' polling also found the former vice president slipping with Puerto Rican men. Trump began targeting them with radio and TV ads in recent weeks, particularly in the Tampa and Orlando areas.
Cuban Americans account for 29 percent of Hispanic voters in Florida and Puerto Ricans account for 27 percent, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
“What they’re trying to do is create enough doubt about Joe Biden and enough concern about him, his leadership and capabilities,” Valencia said. “They’ve created a both-sides-ism that actually just makes Latino voters just stay home. A Latino male staying home is a net vote for Donald Trump.”
But the candidates' numbers among Hispanic and senior voters are not static, and the election is underway in Florida. More than 3 million people have voted so far by mail or at early voting centers, and the campaigns continue to churn out new ads in English and Spanish and appear in person in key media markets in Central and South Florida.
In left-leaning Miami-Dade County, where as recently as Labor Day a Bendixen & Amandi International poll for the Miami Herald found Trump had improved his standing over 2016 by about 100,000 votes, a new Change Research poll commissioned by the mayoral campaign of Daniella Levine Cava found that a flurry of campaign spending by Biden had lifted his numbers to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 levels. That year, Clinton crushed Trump by 300,000 votes in Miami-Dade, Florida’s most populous county.
“We see seniors showing growing support for Vice President Biden because he has a plan to confront COVID and protect Social Security and Medicare. We are equally seeing great momentum and support among Hispanic voters across the state because they know Joe Biden is ready to fight for our community and stand up for democracy in Latin America,” said Christian Ulvert, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign in Florida.
But the Trump campaign says it, too, is seeing positive signs in its numbers with seniors and Latinos.
“Support for President Trump is growing because he has delivered for America’s seniors by preserving Social Security, strengthening Medicare, and lowering prescription drug prices across the board,” said Ali Pardo, a Trump campaign spokeswoman. “This president has also prioritized success for the Hispanic communities by creating jobs, lowering taxes and, most recently, by delivering the White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative.”
Johnson, the AARP state director, said the group’s polling has shown that Medicare, Social Security and high drug prices remain top priorities for seniors, as they have been for years. A new, fourth priority, has been added, he said: the coronavirus pandemic.
Back in Fort Myers on Friday, Trump, who has often dismissed the severity of the pandemic and encouraged his supporters to push Democratic governors to open up their states, brought up the pandemic again, but with a different tone.
“There are people also that would rather stay in place, stay where you are. And to those people — and I understand that very well: Stay. Just relax. Stay until it’s gone. And it’ll be gone, but stay. Don’t feel badly or don’t feel good about it. Just stay. If you feel safe, stay,” said the president who has chafed at universal lockdowns and mask orders.
Trump, 74, told the group, “I’m working as hard as I can so you can kiss and hug your children and grandchildren very soon. That’s something I missed also, I will be honest with you.”
Tampa Bay Times elections coverage
VOTER GUIDE: Access the Tampa Bay Times’ Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide.
HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on early voting locations, rules for voting by mail and more.
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?
SIGN UP FOR ELECTION TEXT MESSAGES: Get voting information, news updates and ask political editor Steve Contorno questions about the candidates and issues, directly through your phone.
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.