Pembroke Pines, Florida — "This is so not Joe," Karen Fortman flitted her fingers across a sea of white rings, precariously looped around chairs set eight feet apart. "In other years, Joe would have come right over here with his hand out and tapped you on the shoulder," said the Broward County senior council member as she patted her own.
Instead, the Biden campaign staff passed out N95 masks so volunteers could double up on face coverings. Touch-free forehead thermometers replaced voter registration clipboards at the door of Biden's "address to older Americans" event.
"Better safe than sorry," 77-year-old Sheldon Potnick of Parkland, Florida offered before settling into his circle. For most of the ten invited audience members, the Democratic nominee's address marked their first real outing since March, except for biweekly grocery trips and the occasional doctor's appointment.
Three hundred miles north, Trump supporter Joan Strong found her own way to play it safe. The recently converted Republican leaned back in her lawn chair, camped outside President Trump's rally in Ocala, Florida with two friends. The retirees all joked that they don't leave the house these days, gesturing to a brown bag of groceries and a nearby jumbotron where they planned to watch the president's address.
"We're staying away from people," Strong chuckled and unfurled her cloth mask before fastening it around her ears. "When [the president] was among people, he should have had the mask on. But that was his choice." She added, "But when he got it, he took care of himself."
However, alast month showed more voters 65 and older feel Biden's coronavirus response would be more likely to keep them safe than Mr. Trump's. And while the president leads among Florida likely voters age 65 and up — 53% to 44% — Biden is cutting into Mr. Trump's 2016 margins. Mr. Trump's current margin with seniors (9 points) falls short of his 2016 winning margin (17 points).
The same poll showed just 3% of Florida likely voters and 1% of Florida seniors say they might change their mind before Election Day. So, rather than persuading, campaigns are trying to drive up turnout among favorable voters to win the battleground state, with its 29 electoral votes.
While Biden has a slight edge over President Trump in statewide polling, Republicans see hope in Florida's voter registration numbers. The Florida GOP has narrowed Democrats' long-held voter registration edge to just 134,000 out of 14.4 million voters—less than 1%, according to data from the secretary of state's office. In 2016, Democrats held a near-330,000-voter advantage before Hillary Clinton lost the state.
For Biden, the departure from in-person campaigning aims to relay a "practice what you preach" seriousness toward the coronavirus in a country where eight out of 10 COVID-19-related deaths reported in the U.S. have been among adults 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In Florida, 20% of the population is in this age group.
"The Villages" in Central Florida is one of the largest retirement communities in the country, and it's in an area that has proven decisive for presidential contenders. It's been featured in both Biden's TV advertisements and President Trump's rally speeches.
In fact, on Friday Mr. Trump traveled to the Villages. It was the second visit for the GOP ticket in two weeks — Vice President Pence took a trip here earlier this month. This is Mr. Trump's fourth visit to Florida in four weeks and he's made at least 14 trips to the state this year. The president also has a home in Palm Beach and has changed his residency to Florida.
"I love The Villages. They fight for us," President Trump called out at his last Villages rally in Ocala, just 30 miles south of the living community earlier this month. He told thousands, "I read stories every day they're out there, they're driving those beautiful golf carts, nicest golf carts ever made. They got golf carts that are better than your car," he points into a predominantly maskless crowd.
In 2016, then-candidate Trump outperformed the Republican presidential nominees in Marion County—one of the three counties where The Villages are located—by capturing nearly 62% of the vote. John McCain received 55% of the vote in Marion County in 2008 and Mitt Romney received 57% in 2012. Earlier this month, Vice President Pence held a campaign rally inside "America's Friendliest Hometown"—another Villages nickname — following his debate.
Steve Maiaroto, 67, has lived in The Villages for four years. He said that while the area is known for its "bastion of right-wing politics," he and other Biden supporters are working to keep the race close this election.
"When you see the polls where Biden is leading, when we stand outside waving our flags along the highway, we're seeing the same thing. We're getting almost 10-to-one good honks versus people giving us...fingers," said Maiaroto. "All we have to do is keep it close here...I don't want it to be a landslide in The Villages."
"It's so red in this area that some people stay under the radar until they know they have others, our people, and then they come out," said Lake County Democrats Chair Nancy Hurlbert, during a Biden car caravan in The Villages. Hurlbert added that the support Democrats have seen for Biden in the area surpasses her team's wildest dreams.
Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien hasn't disputed the president has lost support among senior citizens but told reporters this month that those shortfalls "are going to be offset by gains in certain voting populations, Black, Hispanic and others."
Both campaigns are chasing the growing Hispanic vote that will almost certainly impact the outcome of the election. Ahead of the 2016 general election, there were more than two million registered Hispanic voters in the state, 16% of Florida's total registered voters at the time. Pew Research reported that while 62% of Latino voters in Florida voted for Hillary Clinton, 54% of Cuban voters voted for Mr. Trump, compared to the 26% of non-Cuban Latino voters who voted for him.
University of Florida Political Science Professor Michael McDonald says Democrats haven't effectively organized Latino voters here, pointing to 2018 when exit polls showed GOP Governor Rick Scott narrowly beat Democratic Senator Bill Nelson among Latino men and Republican Ron DeSantis tied with Democratic challenger Andrew Gillum among the voting bloc. McDonald also noted that Republicans have done well with more than just Cuban-American voters.
Latinos in Florida are "not as Democratic as Latinos elsewhere, at least in our state elections," said McDonald. "I think they're more up for grabs than you might think."
The Trump campaign has been making investments, deploying its "Latinos for Trump" board across the state and pouring money into Spanish-language TV ads touting economic revival. Hispanic voters in the state also differ when it comes to perceptions of issues like socialism, a motivating factor in the Trump campaign's branding of Democrats as socialists, while appealing to Venezuelan communities and other Hispanic groups in Florida.
"Cuban-Americans, Venezuelan Americans, and Nicaraguan Americans are especially sensitive I think to accusations of socialism or the perception of one candidate or the other candidate to try to set up an authoritarian system," said University of Miami Political Science Department Chair Gregory Koger. "So those messages, I perceive seem to be doing pretty well among those communities."
Biden maintains a 20-point lead among Hispanic voters in Florida, where 17.3% of registered voters are Hispanic. But in a state where elections are traditionally won and lost by thin margins, Koger said that "it can behoove a candidate" to appeal to demographics and counties, even when they can't be won outright.
"Just by changing the margin in those counties or among those subgroups, they can build a statewide coalition," said Koger. "I don't think Donald Trump is going to win Miami-Dade, but if he can lose it by a little bit that would help him a lot...Yes, it's possible that particularly among Latinos, that you could have one candidate whose preferred by a majority, but the other candidate wins just based on differentials in turnout. [But] I don't see that happening among senior citizens."
"Latinos for Trump!" Michelle Marrero calls out to a queue of supporters waiting on temperature checks outside the president's rally in Ocala. Cheers answered her. Her husband and fellow Puerto-Rican American Eric Marrero ticks off the reasons he's voting for the president.
"He is looking out for the Latinos in the job race. There's lower unemployment. Everything is going up under this president," he said, pausing. "We got hit by this China virus and it brought down the economy. But I guarantee you it's going to go right back up as long as he's the president."
But Willie Paredes, 54, a business owner in Orlando who didn't vote in 2016 said most of the Latinos that he's asked are supporting Biden.
"His plan for our community is going to change and help us to have a better future," Paredes said of Biden. "I don't see a lot of support for our president and a lot of people that I've asked...they react very, very aggressive to the fact that they don't want him anymore. You know, they want that change. There's a new hope in Joe Biden."
In the final run-up to Election Day, the Trump campaign plans to try launching joint ads with the Republican National Committee that target seniors outside the Sunshine State in Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin. It will still pour nearly $8.8 million into Florida TV advertising touting the economy in the final two-week stretch, while the Biden campaign plans to spend just over $8.3 million on radio and television statewide.
Nearly 3 million have already voted by mail and through early in-person voting in Florida, which began Monday. With just under two weeks left in the state's early voting period, the number of votes cast is 45% of the total number of votes cast by mail and early in-person in 2016.