Opinion: Central Florida Retirees Are Fleeing the Democratic Party

Democrats were elated by a recent viral video of a pro-Biden golf cart parade through The Villages, aka “America’s Friendliest Home Town,” and a retirement community believed to have played a key role in Donald Trump’s 2016 victory.

“Wow. Things are heating up in The Villages. Trump is toast,” one excited Democrat tweeted. “That is a big deal,” another responded. “From what I know, The Villages were mostly pro-Trump. Seems things are changing in FL.”

And based on the data, things are changing. But not in a way Democrats will like.

Since January 1, 2015, Democrats in central Florida have been fleeing their party in droves, either joining the Republican Party or changing their voter registration to NPA (No Party Affiliation). In doing so, they’re helping shift Florida more solidly into Trump’s Electoral College column and reducing the number of states the incumbent president must defend to win re-election.

In Sumter County, west of Orlando, where most residents of The Villages live, more than 5,000 voters have left the Democratic Party. Nearly 4,000 changed their registration to Republican and the rest to NPA.

At the same time, more Republicans are moving in. Sumter County now has almost 10,000 more registered Republicans than it did in 2016. The voter registration breakdown is now 57 percent Republican and 24 percent Democrat, compared to 53 percent Republican and 26 percent Democrat in 2016.

Trump won Sumter County with 69 percent of the vote in 2016, pulling heavily from unaffiliated voters.

Sumter County has the distinction of having the oldest population in the United States. Nearly 60 percent of its residents are 65 or older. It’s part of a trifecta of counties in Central Florida — Sumter, Lake and Marion — that help keep the swing state swinging, so to speak, and is key to any Republican victory.

Which is why these numbers should make Democrats nervous.

“The last two elections, the winning margin in Sumter County is about 32,000 votes,” says John Calandro, former chairman of the Sumter County Republican Party. “When you couple that with Lake County and Marion County, you will see that 100,000 ‘plus’ votes are needed to win here in Florida, which is why this is such a popular area with candidates.”

Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Florida by a margin of 119,770 votes, winning the state’s 29 electoral votes. Without the big margins in Sumter, Lake and Marion and a handful of other counties, he wouldn’t have had the votes needed to balance out the heavily Democratic counties of South Florida, along with Orlando.

In Lake and Marion Counties, the numbers show a similar trend.

In Lake County, more than 6,000 Democrats have changed to Republican since 2015, twice as many as changed their registration from Republican to Democrat in the same period. And more than 4,500 additional Democrats changed their party affiliation to NPA.

In Marion County, more than 7,400 Democrats have changed to Republican since 2015, a net increase of 4,625. There are now 15,000 more Republicans in the county than in 2016, compared to about 4,000 more Democrats.

Calandro says he sees the shift away from the Democratic Party among retirees in Florida and thinks he knows why it’s happening.

“I would say the vast majority of the Democrats that I know are Kennedy-style Democrats,” he says. “I’m 74. When you look at our average age down here, we consider kids 60. And so, when you look at our life experiences and things of that nature, many of the Democrats grew up in a different Democratic Party. And I think when they sit down and look at each other over dinner or look at themselves in the mirror, particularly the last couple of elections, they’ve had a hard time relating to the party.”

If party registration pushes Florida off the list of competitive states for Joe Biden, it will narrow the map Republicans have to defend to keep Trump in the White House.

“The president didn’t win with 270 electoral votes. He won with more than 300,” Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien noted during a press call on Monday. “If he holds all the other states he won in 2016, and the president only needs to win one of the three swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania. Not two of three, not three of three. Just one of three.”

In The Villages, most activities have been halted for months due to the COVID-19 scare, but Calandro says he’s gauging support for the president by watching the golf carts that go by (most Village residents get around the community in golf carts, rather than cars). Comparing the number of golf carts with Trump stickers to those with Biden stickers, he says it’s evident that support for the president is “substantial.”

“They are grossly outnumbered,” he says of Democrats.

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