In Florida retirement community, Biden supporters try chipping away Trump's edge
"I atone for my mistakes,” said a lifelong Republican voting for Joe Biden.
When President Donald Trump held a rally at The Villages retirement community in Florida last week, Stan and Carol Swies were among throngs of other Trump supporters who showed up hours early, excited to see him speak.
“We actually helped carry him in the last election,” Carol Swies told “Nightline.” “So I think he has a soft spot for us, and [we] just want to make sure that we’re there for him, which, of course, we are.”
With over 130,000 residents, the Swieses live in the country’s largest retirement community. Spread between three counties northwest of Orlando, The Villages made headlines in 2016 when some of its residents organized a golf cart parade in support of Trump’s presidential bid. That year, 68% of the community -- mostly comprised of white Republicans -- voted for Trump.
The lively locality boasts over 2,700 social clubs, from wide-ranging ones surrounding sports, the arts and popular hobbies, to niche clubs like "All Things Celtic" and "Astrologers of the Villages." There are also over 300 golf courses, free nightly music and dancing. About 60,000 golf carts scuttle about as a popular means of transportation for the residents, 80% of whom must be over 55 years of age regardless of whether they rent or own their homes. People under 19 are also not allowed to reside there permanently.
Stan Swies is the elections director for the "Villagers for Trump" club. Although many who live at The Villages already support Trump, the 77-year-old former insurance executive has been working to recruit even more neighbors to Trump’s side.
“President Trump has said it and I helped run the election for Governor [Ron] DeSantis and for Senator [Rick] Scott, and we carried all the elections, according to all three of them,” Stan Swies told “Nightline.” “So they all admit if it wasn’t for Central Florida, and especially The Villages, they would’ve lost.”
With Trump’s approval rating dropping substantially due to his handling of the coronavirus and polls showing only a small lead over his Democratic rival Joe Biden, both candidates have been campaigning aggressively throughout the swing state. In the last six elections, no candidate has won without taking Florida.
With that in mind, the "Villagers for Trump" and "Trump 2020" clubs worked together to fundraise enough money to rent 18 billboards throughout the state -- at up to $5,000 each -- to illuminate what he says are Trump’s accomplishments.
“I think that he has done what he said he was gonna do -- or improved it greatly -- as far as the border wall, rebuilding the military,” Stan Swies said, adding that he wants people to look at the billboards and say, “Wow, yeah. Maybe he did do that.”
The billboards, however, don’t advertise Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Stan Swies said Democrats’ campaign efforts focusing on the pandemic “doesn’t make any sense” and that there’s “no answer” to the pandemic so long as there isn’t a vaccine. He also said he doesn’t believe the reporting on COVID-19 rates.
He said he’s not afraid of catching the virus and that he and Carol Swies only wear masks in certain situations, like grocery shopping.
“We have done nothing different since March,” he said. “We live the same life that we have. I play golf three times a week … and that’s the way I’m gonna live. … I’m not gonna hide. I’m gonna live, and if God wants me to die of the virus then I guess that’s the way I’m gonna die. … I’m not fearful of it, and I know my wife Carol is not, and that’s the way we live. We’re even thinking of going on a cruise in November.”
In another part of The Villages, Sara Branscome is also politically active, going to the local grocery store with a Biden-Harris T-shirt on to show silent support for the Biden-Harris ticket.
“So when I come here weekly, I don’t necessarily buy stuff,” she told “Nightline.” “Sometimes I just come and walk around with my shirt. I’m just making a statement … that Biden fans are here.”
The former teacher volunteers six days a week with "The Villages Democratic Club," calling potential voters, among other activities. She’s voting for Biden because he says "he’s a ‘mensch. And in case people don’t know… A ‘mensch’ describes somebody with integrity, somebody who is truthful. He gives me hope. I believe that he has plans for things that we need plans for.”
Branscome, 60, said she’s “not pleased” with the way the president has handled the pandemic, and that she’s afraid of catching the virus and spreading it to other people.
“I’m very concerned with not having the masks. Like, it’s OK not to wear masks and you’ll see it around here. I think we should have closed sooner, been informed faster. Maybe mandatory masks, social distancing. Dr. [Anthony] Fauci is one of my heroes and I think we should’ve listened to him more,” she said, referring to the country’s top infectious disease doctor and member of the White House’ Coronavirus Task Force.
Branscome believes Trump’s approval among seniors has dropped because of his handling of the virus and what she says is a lack of returns on his promises.
“When I speak to my friends who are now the 'Republicans for Biden,' which is a growing group, and we ask them, for them, the virus is very big,” Branscome said. “And then, not seeing what they felt they were voting for, [what] they were hoping for: huge economic change, huge health care reform. We’re just not seeing it.”
Stephen Staruch, who is also a Villager, voted for Trump in 2016 but mailed in his ballot this year in support of Biden.
“One of the reasons is I atone for my mistakes,” Staruch, 67, told “Nightline.” “I don’t have a problem admitting when I made a mistake, and I did. Second thing is somebody’s got to bring this country back together. … I just want our Democracy back, the rule of law, the balance between the branches of the government.”
“The treatment of veterans ... from the time he first talked about John McCain all the way up to the suckers and losers comments ... his fixation is only on himself,” he went on to say, referring to an Atlantic report in which anonymous sources alleged Trump made these comments. “I’ve never heard a guy use the word ‘I’ so much in my life. … We need to get our relationships with our international partners like NATO back and get this country focused on recovering from this COVID-19 thing, and he’s not capable of doing that.”
Staruch, a former executive at UPS, is a lifelong Republican.
“I'm one of 10 children -- not a well-to-do family. My father left when I was 4 years old and just disappeared. So you would think that'd be a great background for a Democrat," he said. “But I think between my military days and the corporate days, just over the course of time, you become a businessperson. And business seems to line up typically with the Republican Party because of what, at one point in time, was fiscal responsibility. That's what I would've identified with best.”
He also said he “couldn’t imagine” Trump’s handling of the pandemic “being worse.”
“Number one, start with things like empathy,” Staruch said. “There’s Joe Biden meeting with families when somebody’s died unnecessarily. That’s what presidents do. And there’s been none of that behavior demonstrated by [Trump]. So from embracing science, having a nationwide plan, having testing, having tracing -- all those things we should be able to do -- and doing nothing but politicizing the thing. And then demonizing Democratic governors as a result of it. I mean, he outsourced our responsibility to 50 governors and said, ‘Have at it,’ and we ended up with 50 different plans. How did that work out?”
Like Branscome, he says he trusts Biden to be president.
“He’s an honorable man. You just watch his handling of things and the way he responds to things. He speaks from his heart,” Staruch said. “And I have no doubt that what he’s telling me is believable. He’s not lying to me.”
With 29 electoral votes, Florida is key to winning the White House, and both campaigns know it. Biden’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee have together spent $6.8 million in advertisements throughout the state -- the most out of any state in the country. With Florida a top priority, soon after Trump recovered from COVID-19, he held an event in Sanford.
The Trump campaign again visited Florida last week to hold a rally at The Villages. Carol Swies said Trump’s campaign gave them short notice, announcing the rally four days prior, and that they “had to kind of hurry to get it all organized.” Stan Swies said it was probably their 20th time seeing the president speak.
Following the event, Carol Swies said she didn’t think the rally changed any voters’ minds “because, honestly, everybody there was gonna vote for him.” Her husband, Stan Swies, noted, however, that Trump asked “that everybody go home, call your friends, your neighbors, your relatives and get them out to vote.”
Meanwhile, Biden supporter Branscome said she wasn’t happy Trump held a rally in her community. She said she wasn’t “so much worried about him energizing Republicans” as much as she was about the virus.
“To see all these people who came without masks and no social distancing, that was very worrisome to me,” she said. “I’m gonna be wearing two masks and I’m actually gonna stay away from most populated places for at least the next two weeks.”
Although Branscome doesn’t think The Villages will flip for Biden, she hopes to help pare away some of the votes for Trump.
“He won 68% to 23%. If we can make it less than two to one votes for him, then we can help Florida win,” she said. “We have a lot of Republicans for Biden that joined us, and a lot of Independents for Bidens, and that’s what we need to make those numbers voting for [Trump] a lot less than they were last time.”
Staruch, who is flipping his vote and also helping in this effort, says that part of his decision to vote for Biden is rooted in the legacy he wants to leave his grandchildren.
“I think about how they’re gonna judge this somewhere down the road when they know what happened and the history books are written, you know, ‘What did you do, Grandpa, during the 2020 election? You said you were a lifetime Republican. Did you just [vote Republican] because that’s what you’ve always done, or did you do what you thought was right? I wanna be able to tell them I did what I thought was right.”