15 days to US elections: Hint of tide turning against Trump in Florida

Political consultant Jeffrey Garcia (far left), who runs campaigns of several Democratic candidates, confers with volunteers in Florida.
Political consultant Jeffrey Garcia (far left), who runs campaigns of several Democratic candidates, confers with volunteers in Florida. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

What United States President Donald Trump's critics find coarse and vulgar, 75-year-old Doug Kelly, with a Trump cap on his head, finds gratifying.

"What appeals to me?" mused Mr Kelly as he sat at the wheel of his golf cart, his wife Marion next to him. "The economy. His brash way that he talks, he's not a... politician," he said of Mr Trump. "I think the country's gonna move ahead real good, and I don't wanna live in a socialist country."

"The stock market is going up - I like that," Mr Kelly added.

He was a Democrat until a while ago, but "the Democratic Party has changed; it's more radical now".

He and his wife live in The Villages, a sprawling and usually loyally Republican retirement community of around 122,000 near Orlando, Florida.

Later, inviting me to sit at their table at one of the semi-outdoor restaurants suited to Florida's balmy weather, Mr Kelly said: "I watch only Fox News."

But there is a hint of change in the air. Earlier this month, Democrats were delighted that the residents mustered a 500-strong golf cart procession for Mr Joe Biden as they turned in their vote-by-mail ballots.

It was a sign of the needle moving ever so slightly against Mr Trump in the Sunshine State, the third most populous and eighth most diverse in the Union.

A mile away outside The Villages, a steady stream of mostly middle-aged or elderly folk have been dropping into the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris campaign office, manned also by residents of The Villages - who say they are seeing more Republicans switching to supporting the Democrats.

One key driver is the President's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

LOSING SENIORS?

Resident Chris Stanley, a veteran of many election campaigns and currently president of The Villages Democratic Club, told The Straits Times the switch is not wishful thinking but "an actual thing".

"To a degree, it's his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic," she said. "Many people here have lost a loved one and that didn't necessarily have to happen.

"To a slightly larger degree, it's whatever the offensive tweet of the morning is - the last straw that breaks the camel's back."

  • WHY THE STATE MATTERS

    Florida's large influence in the US presidential elections was felt most acutely by the Democrats when a long battle to determine who won the state in 2000 went against them. Republican George W. Bush, then Texas governor, edged out the Democratic contender, Vice-President Al Gore. Florida is a large and complex state with two time zones and has 29 Electoral College votes. Mr Joe Biden is trying to turn out the base and convince some Republicans, especially seniors, to vote for him. Rarely are there seismic shifts in Florida and margins are razor sharp.

There's also the fear that President Trump in his second term will reduce funding for social security, which comes from instruments like the payroll tax that he wants to cut to stimulate the economy.

President Trump, on the offensive in Florida as his team senses trouble, insisted at a rally in the state last Friday that he would protect seniors' social security benefits. In an e-mail that night, his campaign said "our seniors will be the first in line for the vaccine".

DISPLACED TRUST

The Democrats may gain some votes as well from Puerto Ricans resettled in Florida after the 2017 Hurricane Maria laid waste to the island, which Mr Trump allegedly mused about selling off.

A liberal US$13 billion (S$17.7 billion) in federal assistance to Puerto Rico announced just weeks ago has cut little ice, observers say, with Puerto Ricans unhappy with him.

Add to that a steady stream of people from liberal cities like New York who have migrated to Florida.

And a few thousand votes matter in Florida, where margins can be razor thin. In the 2018 midterm elections, the winners were decided by 0.4 per cent of the vote in the governor's race and 0.2 per cent in the US Senate race.

In 2016, Mr Trump won with 1.2 per cent more of the vote in Florida than his rival Hillary Clinton. Florida has 29 votes in the Electoral College. A candidate needs 270 for a majority in the Electoral College.

"The Democrats don't have to win Florida to win," explained political scientist Charles Zelden, who is a professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. "It is a must-win, however, for Trump," he told ST.

"If Biden wins Florida, it's almost impossible for Trump to win the Electoral College. He would have to not only pick up the states that he had won last time; he would have to pick up additional states to make up for the loss of 29 electoral votes.

"Florida isn't the tipping point state, but it is the bellwether state."

Both parties have small armies of lawyers on call to fight if the Florida vote count is challenged.

Mr Jeffrey Garcia, a political consultant running several Democratic candidates' local and television campaigns, said that as a realist, it is best for the campaign to assume Florida is tied.

"I would rather be Joe Biden today than Donald Trump," he said. "That does not mean the race is over. It means Joe Biden is in a more advantageous position today."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2020, with the headline 'Hint of tide turning against President in Sunshine State'. Print Edition | Subscribe