This article was originally published at nbcnews.com on October 15, 2020
Last week, Democrats took delight in the spectacle of a 500-golf cart flotilla of Joe Biden supporters parading through Florida's largest retirement community en route to turn in their vote-by-mail ballots.
It was a rare sight: The Villages is one of the most staunchly Republican enclaves in the Sunshine State.
But The Villages isn't just worth watching for its warring buggies and flags. From a data standpoint, it could be the best early indicator on Election Night of a "gray revolt" against President Donald Trump — and who's on track to win Florida.
Trump's campaign assigns so much importance on the 122,000-resident community dubbed "Florida's friendliest hometown" that Vice President Mike Pence visited last Saturday and Trump is scheduled to hold a rally in nearby Ocala on Friday. Biden was in Broward County on Tuesday making a pitch to seniors.
But amid COVID-19, Trump has struggled to replicate his 2016 success with older voters, and there's mounting evidence even more seniors are bailing on him.
Technically, The Villages sprawls across three counties, but the bulk of its booming population is in Sumter County. Sumter is demographically extreme: it's 85 percent white and it boasts the highest median age in the country by far, 69.
And it has trended Republican: it voted for Mitt Romney by 35 points in 2012, for Trump by 39 points in 2016, and for Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott by 42 points in 2018. But the fact the Biden campaign has even so much as a pulse in Sumter gives Democrats hope they can narrow the margins in a Trump stronghold enough to win Florida — and cut off Trump's path to a second term.
Ironically, although Florida still gets a bad rap for "hanging chads" and the 2000 Bush vs. Gore recount, it could offer the nation the best early look at who's ahead on Election Night 2020. That's because Florida has a robust infrastructure for processing and counting a large quantity of absentee ballots quickly, whereas many other battleground states may take days or weeks to report their absentees.
Florida's counties often report their entire early vote totals in one batch in the minutes after the polls close. And nowhere in Florida is early voting more popular than Sumter County: in 2016, 84 percent of Sumter's voters cast ballots either by mail or early in-person, by far the highest rate in the state.
That means the first results from Sumter could provide an enormous early clue as to which way Florida — and the nation — are headed on Election Night.
"I'll be looking at Sumter and Pinellas," says veteran Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale, referring to another senior-heavy county in the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area. "Both of them are really old and over 80 percent white. And you could have 80 to 85 percent of the vote there reported by 7:15pm."
In 2018, Scott, a Republican, carried Sumter by a massive 71 percent to 29 percent margin on his way to defeating Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by a tenth of a point statewide.
That means Trump likely needs at least a two-to-one margin in Sumter to have a chance of keeping Florida in his column.
Today, Florida is a land of countervailing trends. Schale and other Democrats note that so far, Democrats are returning mail ballots at higher rates than Republicans, including in Sumter. But Republicans are encouraged by voter registration figures: between 2016 and this August, Sumter's rolls ballooned by 12 percent, and the GOP's registration edge there widened to 33 points from 27.
Because of Trump's relentless attacks on mail-in voting, it's possible more of his supporters will opt to vote on Election Day (rather than early or by mail) than in 2016. That would have the effect of further polarizing the early vote toward Biden and the Election Day vote toward Trump, skewing the typical math.
"It's very hard to compare (2020) to anything," warns Schale.
However, if Sumter County — which had registered 103,445 voters as of the end of August — reports an initial batch of at least 75,000 votes, that could still easily amount to over four fifths of the total votes cast in the county. And if Trump were to carry that first batch by, say, 66 percent to 33 percent, it would indicate a very close race for Florida. But if Trump were only to win them by just 60 percent to 39 percent, it would be early confirmation of a potentially catastrophic loss of support for the president among white seniors — and signal Biden is well-positioned for victory.
Trump's newly adopted home state of Florida is a must-win for his hopes of a second term. But if the "gray revolt" against him depicted in polls and dispatches from The Villages comes to pass, it should be apparent quickly on election night.
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