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Trump eyes older voters in Florida for any sign of faltering

SUN CITY CENTER, Fla. – President Donald Trump's path to reelection runs through places like Sun City Center, a former cow pasture south of Tampa, Florida, that's now home to a booming retirement community. But some residents in this conservative swath of America's premier battleground are growing restless.

Irvin Hilts is among them. The 72-year-old retiree voted for Trump in 2016 but has grown frustrated with the tumult surrounding his administration. His support for Trump collapsed entirely amid the coronavirus pandemic, which Hilts blames the president for mishandling.

“I don’t think Donald Trump is doing a very good job at all," Hilts said. "Changes his mind too often, leaving too much up to the states when the federal government should be handling more of it.”

Such sentiment could damage Trump's bid to keep the White House. Trump has virtually no path to victory without winning Florida, and older voters are key to that effort. Older voters make up an outsize share of the voting population in the state, where Trump defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by just over 1 percentage point in 2016. Nationally, Trump carried voters 65 and older in the state by 9 percentage points, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

Some Republicans warn that could be tough for Trump to repeat as the public health and economic fallout of the pandemic deepens.

“They were willing to look past his tweets and consider their 401(k)s,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who advised Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign. “That message worked until the pandemic caused the market crash.”

Any erosion of support among seniors could doom Trump if this November’s election is as close as four years ago. A trio of Midwestern battlegrounds — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — feature sizable aging populations. Arizona, another state that Democrats hope to flip in 2020, is home to a growing number of retirees.

But as is often the case during close elections, it could all come down to Florida.

As she sat in a Sun City Center cafe on a recent day, Jan Hubble was hyperaware that many of the other diners who were seated a respectful distance away were Trump supporters. She made clear she was not one of them.

“I do not support him,” the 67-year-old retired nurse said. “But it has nothing to do with the pandemic. At this point in time, he may be doing the best he can. But he could be doing everything perfectly, and I still wouldn’t vote for him.”

But others said they haven't tempered their support for Trump at all; in fact, they've increased it.

“I wasn't a Trump supporter until this,” said 83-year-old Jim Baldwin, referring to the pandemic. He said he voted for Clinton in 2016. Now he's voting for Trump. “I think he's doing all that can be done.”

Still, Trump's team is closely following any sign of faltering support among seniors and other core constituencies.

In a series of recent meetings, top advisers briefed the president that he was currently losing the race to Democrat Joe Biden and urged him to discontinue his daily task force briefings, according to five administration and current and former campaign officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about private discussions. Trump protested, citing high TV ratings, but aides said that seniors, the largest viewing group, were being increasingly unsettled by the president’s erratic behavior, false theories and fights with reporters.

Trump quit the briefings after suggesting injecting disinfectant to battle the disease. But a news conference Monday abruptly ended after another flash of anger at reporters.

Trump once held massive rallies largely attended by baby boomers and seniors, who treated them like rock concerts. With those events scuttled because of the pandemic, the campaign has largely turned to online events, which have limited reach to seniors. The campaign has discussed trying to target digital events for older Americans, while the White House has begun highlighting the president’s accomplishments for seniors.

Standing in the ornate East Room earlier this month, Trump surrounded himself with health officials as he signed a proclamation declaring May to be “Older Americans Month.”

“The virus poses the greatest risk to older Americans,” said Trump, vowing to protect them. He has also reiterated his pledge not to touch social safety net programs while the administration has launched efforts to safeguard nursing homes, which have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

“President Trump and his administration remain focused on protecting our most vulnerable citizens, including our nation’s senior citizens,” said campaign spokeswoman Sarah Matthews. “Seniors want the peace of mind knowing that their government is doing everything in its capacity to care for them and the Trump administration has taken countless measures to ensure the safety and well-being of seniors during this critical time.”

But in Biden, the 73-year-old Trump is facing a rival who has also shown strength among seniors. The presumptive Democratic nominee, who is 77, won the support of 55% of Democratic voters age 65 and older, according to AP VoteCast surveys conducted in 17 states during this year's primaries. No other Democrat earned more than 14% support from this group.

Trump's campaign is focusing on driving Biden's negatives up and plans to release a new ad campaign this week. But there are questions about whether such efforts will be as effective this year as they were in 2016 against Clinton.

“One of the reasons Trump did well with seniors in 2016 was because a lot of seniors really disliked Clinton,” Conant said. “He needs to make Biden as disliked.”

And some voters, like Hilts, have those doubts about Biden. As he waited outside a barber shop to get his hair cut for the first time in weeks, Hilts shook his head. While he's not voting for Trump, he's not sure he'll vote for Biden, either. It will depend on who he picks as vice president.

“I might just sit it out, based on the lesser of two evils,” he said.

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Lemire reported from Washington.

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