THE VILLAGES, Florida — They played that song from Grease.
The song from the 1970s movie set in the 1950s blasted over the loudspeaker in the parking lot at Brownwood Paddock Square. And when Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta sang the hook — “You’re the one that I want” — at Saturday’s MAGA rally, some older adults chimed in, “ooh, ooh, ooh, honey.”
It was the second large-crowd event in more than 200 days at The Villages — a sprawling senior community in Central Florida where the average age is 67. Nighttime dancing and entertainment stopped in March because of the coronavirus and resumed just days ago. A week earlier, the big farmers market had started up again.
So Vice President Mike Pence rolling up in a big blue bus was exciting.
He and other surrogates for President Donald Trump’s campaign have been on a tear in Florida, a politically vital state where the president’s polling is slipping — most notably among older people. And The Villages, known for its manicured lawns and golf carts and courses, is a Republican haven.
If there are older adults anywhere in America who aren’t particularly concerned about a pandemic that is particularly dangerous for older people, it is here. Here, the fear is about supposedly rising socialism and radically changing American culture, not the coronavirus. Frankly, they’re just not that interested.
That seems to be a relief for the president. Trump made Florida his first campaign stop since returning to the trail after being hospitalized for the coronavirus. Before thousands on Monday night, he bragged about being “immune” (something not scientifically known) and said he wanted to go into his crowd and kiss everyone: “I'll kiss the guys and the beautiful women and the— I'll just give you a big fat kiss." He’ll be back in the state on Friday.
One thing rings true: The Trump campaign’s not talking about the realities of the coronavirus because their supporters don’t want to hear about it, and at this point the president’s campaign doesn’t seem interested in speaking to anyone else.
“Where’s our boy?” Faye Hamdan asked about 30 minutes before Pence arrived on Saturday. The Virginia native was one of the rare mask wearers — a red nylon number with black piping and two vents. The headband resembling antennas, that completed her ladybug look, was an afterthought. She had the coronavirus “before it became popular” in late December, early January, she said.
And yet, Hamdan had little to no interest in hearing what Pence has to say about the coronavirus. The demands for her party and the nation at large are simple: “I want to stop that overuse of the word racism. It's overused. And I want all that looting and burning to stop. I want justice to be served when it needs to be served and I want Hillary Clinton...to be prosecuted. I would love to see her in an orange outfit to tell you the truth.”
Hamdan, 77, admits she is vulnerable, but she’s a “no” on Joe Biden’s plan to mandate masks.
“People are smart enough to know if they want to take care of their own health. They have the guidelines to do so,” she said before weighing in on the president’s health. “He's a healthy boy,” she said. “He's gonna make it.”
Hamdan joined around 2,000 older adults who showed up to greet the vice president — some with decorated golf carts boasting “Trump for Women,” “Jews for Trump,” and “Black Voices for Trump.” Many of them didn’t wear masks, because the pandemic isn't front and center for most Republican seniors in The Villages, who make up 69% of registered voters in the community.
As of Wednesday, Florida has nearly 730,000 cases of COVID-19, according to state data, including more than 15,100 cases in which people have died of the virus. Around 82% of those who died were over the age of 65. The state has recorded 45,675 hospitalizations related to the virus — 53% of those hospitalized were over the age of 65.
The Villages is spread over 32 miles of Central Florida, accounting for most of Sumter County, which has seen several recent spikes in recorded COVID-19 infections, according to state data. As of Friday, 261 people in the county were hospitalized and 76 have died. The Villages' own health site, which has not been updated since Aug. 17, said there’ve been 119 cases and eight deaths recorded within the community.
“I’m fearful we're developing a fear of living and that’s paralyzing,” Kathy Cross, 74, told BuzzFeed News, after offering to put on her mask during the short interview. “Some of our neighbors haven’t been out of the house since March.”
For John, 73, Kathy’s husband, who sat in the driver’s seat of the golf cart next to her, the law and order candidate has his vote.
“I grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and I know exactly where all that stuff happened," John Cross told BuzzFeed News. “And I have loved ones who still live back there who were hunkered down and were just waiting for them to come. They were gonna get in their vans and go north or south.”
Trump won Florida by a margin of 1.2% in the last presidential election. Polls show Biden is currently slightly ahead in the state, though Hillary Clinton was ahead at this stage of the last campaign, too. In the Villages, so far, 6,840 Democrats have voted compared to 5,764 Republicans, many of whom told BuzzFeed News they planned on walking in their vote on Election Day.
According to two recent national polls, Biden holds a double-digit lead over Trump among older adults — but it’s not clear he’ll sustain the lead or win over enough Republicans in a community like The Villages. He’s going about his campaign radically differently: in a visit to Florida on Tuesday, he targeted comments about the pandemic directly to seniors.
“It’s harder than ever to spend time with the people you love, other than on Zoom or on a computer connection,” he said in Pembroke Pines, speaking through a mask. “We’ve all felt that sense of interruption in our lives, and we all know this isn’t normal. Things didn’t have to be this bad.”
Biden later repeated the number of Americans who have died, and the president’s underplaying of a virus that has predominantly affected older adults. “You’re expendable. You’re forgettable. You’re virtually nobody. That’s how he sees seniors,” Biden said. “That’s how he sees you.”
Trump released a nearly three-minute video after leaving the hospital last week where he promised his “favorite people in the world, the seniors” would have access to the drugs he took during his bout with the coronavirus. His supporters at The Villages were thrilled.
“He looked unbelievable,” Suzanne Day told BuzzFeed News. “He looked 20 years younger, and I don't think he had that much makeup on or anything. He looked young!”
Day, 68, was enthusiastic about an experimental drug Eli Lilly is developing intended to treat COVID-19.
“So if it has the same effect that Regeneron did, which made President Trump feel 20 years younger, we’re all gonna sign up just for that reason, whether we have COVID or not.”
John Cross expressed a kind of admiration also.
“It showed he's a real guy,” one senior said. “And his humanity when he came back out and said, you know, ‘I'm not gonna let this define who I am.’ I really respected that it made me feel proud of him to get up and be honest about it, not to tell lies and not to beat his chest and not say, ‘I'm the greatest because it couldn't get me.’ I appreciated how he dealt with it.”
Trump, though, has a knack for complicating his own message. Late Tuesday night, he tweeted an image that mocked older adults in nursing homes, as a means of attacking Biden.
Hours before Pence’s event on Saturday, older adults packed local restaurants in Sumter Square, considered the heart of The Villages. Dozens of older people were seated in restaurants outdoors, some of them close together, without masks. Fox News played on outdoor speakers.
Stephen Staruch, a Republican who’s voting for Biden, had a different reaction to the video.
“Once again he’s lying about things,” Staruch, who was masked and practicing social distancing, said just a few seconds into the video. Staruch, 67, has had buyer’s remorse since the president “became fixated on crowd size” at the inauguration. “That’s kind of his typical stump speech that he gives with no basis in fact, not really addressing the issue and his performance.”
Chris Stanley, president of the community’s Democratic club, told BuzzFeed News she’s had a steady flow of Republicans offering to volunteer “to get that guy out” since July. But their ire is centered around his reckless tweeting and, more recently, executive orders threatening the payroll tax that funds Social Security rather than fighting the coronavirus.
In recent weeks, both campaigns have poured time and resources into Florida, though the Biden campaign is now outspending the Trump campaign, particularly on TV ads. Biden has had six seniors-focused ads running in Florida, including two specifically made to target older adults in Florida, which address COVID-19 and Social Security.
“Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has taken older people’s support for granted while failing them on numerous issues, whether it be his threat to slash funding for Social Security or his refusal to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously," said the Biden campaign's Florida spokesperson Kevin Munoz.
It’s not lost on the Trump campaign that their candidate is hemorrhaging votes within his own age demographic.
“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 been steadfast in preserving Social Security, strengthening Medicare, and lowering prescription drug prices across the board,” said Trump campaign spokesperson Ken Farnaso.
During a call with reporters Monday morning, Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, said recent ad buys would target older adults.
“I'm absolutely sure that there are some votes that we won't perform as well among in certain parts of the country or amongst certain voting populations,” Stepien said. He also said “it’s a good thing” Trump’s base changes from the 2016 election versus his reelection campaign suggesting the Black and Hispanic vote would make up the difference.
“So, whatever perceived slippage you're seeing in your numbers among seniors, I'm absolutely certain that it will be addressed,” Stepien said.