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In Florida, Senior Voters Pull Away From Trump

A sign directs voters to a polling location during the Florida presidential primary on March 17, 2020, in Miami Beach, Florida. (Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
A sign directs voters to a polling location during the Florida presidential primary on March 17, 2020, in Miami Beach, Florida. (Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

Older voters in the key state of Florida appear to be moving away from President Trump.

In 2016, the president swept the 65 and older demographic in Florida and across the nation. But polls suggest that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is pulling many of those voters back to the Democratic Party.

Senior voters are a critical demographic because they turn out at the highest rates in every election. In Florida, where Trump and Biden are polling neck and neck, they could be decisive this year.

A new survey from the AARP finds Trump and Biden virtually tied in voters 65 and older. Four years ago, Trump won that demographic in the Sunshine State by a 17-point margin, according to exit polls.

The same AARP survey shows that Biden has an edge with non-white seniors, including Hispanic voters like Teresa Gavaldá, a 79-year-old Cuban-American living south of Miami who plans to vote for the former vice president this year.

When she first became a citizen in 1970, Gavaldá registered Republican, citing then-Senator and liberal Republican Jacob Javits as one of her heroes. But she soon turned to the Democratic Party, and she says she now votes straight-ticket blue.

“I vote every election and I have taught my kids and my grandchildren that they need to vote in every election,” she says. “They have to have a say in their government.”

She says she learned about the importance of voting when she witnessed the Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro came into power in the 1950s.

“I didn’t like what I saw,” she says. “I was very upset, the whole nine yards.”

Gavaldá, who says she likes her Medicare Advantage health insurance plan, favors liberal proposals such as “Medicare for All” – a policy proposal that Biden has not endorsed. But she fiercely pushes back against claims from the right that Biden is a socialist.

“The right has no clue what socialism is,” she says pointedly. “Americans have no idea what it is to have a dictator… [they] don’t know what can happen if you elect the wrong person.”

In the lead-up to early voting, which begins Oct. 19 in many Florida counties, both Trump and Biden have spent millions on advertising to try to turn out supporters like Gavaldá — and convince voters who are still on the fence. Many of those ads feature topics that seniors care about, such as Social Security and prescription drug prices. Biden has tried to target President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans.

That message may fall flat with many Trump supporters. A Pew Research Center poll from August found that just 39% of Trump supporters considered the COVID-19 pandemic one of their top issues, compared to nearly 9 in 10 voters who listed the economy as very important. James Armes is one of those voters.

Armes, a retired General Electric employee who retired to Palm Coast in northern Florida, plans to support Trump again, just as he did in 2016. He says he left his home state of Illinois in 2009 because it was too liberal, claiming Democrats “ran all the business out of the state.”

He says President Trump has “done a fine job” with the coronavirus response in the U.S. And he believes Trump will replace the Affordable Care Act, protecting health insurance from what Armes calls “Obamaism.”

He adds that Biden, a long-time practicing Catholic, is “Catholic in name only” because of his views on abortion.

“He’s not pro-life. And if you’re not pro-life, you’re not Catholic. You’re lying,” he says.

Randy Lascody of Central Florida is a Catholic — a “cradle Catholic,” he says. The retired National Weather Service meteorologist voted for libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in 2016 because, he says, he saw both President Trump and Hillary Clinton as “dividers.”

But this year he’s thinking about casting a vote for Biden. And in the swing state of Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, Lascody’s vote could make a difference for Democrats.

Lascody, also from Illinois, was “born a Democrat” but says that as he got older, he began voting for the Republican Party because of its stance on taxes.

“Now, as I retired, I don’t want to be a staunch old grump,” he says. “So I see myself more middle of the road now. I like to say I want to progress in my character and my beliefs as I get older.”

Trump’s Twitter habits and the way the president talks about other people — especially immigrants — have no appeal to Lascody, whose wife immigrated to the U.S. from Chile.

“I’m leaning toward Biden because we just need somebody that’s not going to be so harsh toward other people and speak with a civil tongue,” he says.

Because of social distancing, Lascody says he’s avoided uncomfortable conversations with friends regarding the election. His main gripe is the lack of civility in political discussions, and he says he’d like a leader who can unite people.

“Everybody is at each other’s throats,” he says. “I think that it’s terrible as a country.”

Lascody’s biggest issue with Democrats, and something he says is important to other retired seniors, is taxes. Many seniors live on fixed incomes, and the idea of a new administration raising taxes could “scare a lot of elderly people.”

Biden has promised not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year.

With five weeks left until polls close on Nov. 3, Lascody says he could still be persuaded to change his mind — if Biden were to reverse his pledge on taxes.

But he’s in the minority. Gavaldá and Armes — like so many other voters across the country — say there’s nothing at all that could change their mind.

Francesca Paris  produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.