I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in the Miami area talking to voters about their opinions at a variety of polling places, from Miami Beach to Hialeah to West Palm Beach. I’ve met a good mix of voters for and against the president, some enthusiastic about their choice, others less so, but the swing voter (someone who voted Democratic last time and is now voting Republican, or vice versa) has remained elusive. A bit of demographic research hinted at which areas within driving range might reveal one to me. I settled on Lee county, which sits along the Gulf side of the Florida peninsula, about 150 miles from where I am. According to recent data from the state, this is a solidly red county (roughly 204,000 registered Republicans to 129,000 Democrats), but they have a very high proportion of voters with no party affiliation – roughly 28.4%, the third highest rate in the state. They also have a higher rate of seniors than the state average of 17.3%, a population that, according to some reports, might be cooling on Trump because of how he has handled the COVID-19 pandemic. These two figures seemed promising enough to warrant trying my luck there.
Lee County contains two large towns, Fort Myers and Cape Coral, linked by a bridge over the Caloosahatchee river. The first polling place on my list is a civic center in what I would find out is a solidly blue part of Fort Myers. In an adjacent parking lot, there’s a long row of food trucks and street vendors, including a tent with Biden campaign organizers ready to help people on their way to vote; the atmosphere is not unlike that of a street fair. “I haven’t seen anything like this since 2008,” says a local voter named Colleen of all the activity. Both she and her husband Brian, are voting for Biden, and voted for Clinton in 2016. We discuss the election while waiting for barbecue from a large smoker. Brian is not impressed with Trump’s recent debate performance: “He’s good at putting lipstick on a pig, but at the end of the day he’s still a pig.” They tell me that their distaste for the president is not widely shared in their circle of family and friends, and know of only one person within it who has changed her vote from Trump to Biden. I let them know I’m eager to speak with her, but we have no luck making contact.
The search continues as I move on to a polling place in Cape Coral, across the bridge. There’s no festive atmosphere here, just a library parking lot with a slow trickle of voters passing through. I talk with an elderly couple, Angela and Carmine, who both voted for Trump. Their top issue is abortion, and are very pleased with what’s about to happen regarding the Supreme Court for that reason. They both also voted for Trump in 2016, and when I ask them about any swing voters they might know, they mention a friend of their daughter who now runs a Trump store in town. “They were so Democratic, they hated Trump,” Angela says, “and then my daughter explained the life issue to them […] I don’t know exactly what happened, but now they absolutely love Trump.”
The Trump Store is at a strip mall in Fort Myers Beach, nestled between an auto parts store and a cigar club. I find the owner, Carolina, behind the counter, helping an elderly patron figure out where his polling place is. She’s expecting me, having received word from Angela, and we introduce ourselves. “It’s like a candy store for adults. I love it,” she says, gesturing to the merchandise that covers seemingly every square inch of wall and table space – flags, t-shirts, bumper stickers, signs and chachkas for every shade of Trump fan. The crown jewel: a pool doughnut bearing Trump’s likeness that hangs inflated above the front door.
Carolina used to run concession trailers, selling cinnamon rolls and elephant ears at large outdoor events like the Florida state fair, but COVID-19 brought all of that to a halt. “It was really devastating to our family […] I did a lot of praying, and god threw this in my lap one day, and I ran with it.” She started in July, selling on the side of the road and at gas stations, but the local police kept getting calls about code violations (from “liberals,” she claims) and shut her down five different times, even after she obtained licenses to sell her wares. She eventually realized that the only way to protect her business was to have a brick-and-mortar shop: “I wanna see you come shut me down there.”
Carolina says she wasn’t a Trump supporter when she opened the shop, that her transformation actually came about afterwards. Before her political shift, she included anti-Trump items in her inventory as well: “It has to be ‘Trump’ or ‘F*** Trump.’ Trump’s name’s gotta be on it for it to sell, because ‘Biden’ doesn’t sell anything.” I ask her if it had anything to do with what Angela said, that her daughter maybe brought her around on the issue of abortion. “Really it was my family,” she says.
Shortly after Carolina opened the store, she joined in what she thought was a routine family zoom call, and was surprised at the number of relatives present. She thought it might be an intervention. “I was like ‘Who’s on drugs? What’s going on?’” What she didn’t realize was that the intervention was for her: Carolina’s family was not comfortable with her selling what her sister called “antichrist stuff.” “The left side of my family completely disowned me, told me I’m dead to them.” She says that she was politically “in the middle” before the call, a moderate Clinton voter in 2016, and that this latest experience was an eye-opener. “That is socialism,” she says. “Like, who are you to tell me what I can and can’t sell?” She told them that she wasn’t going to stop, and she’ll get back in touch with them after the election.
Carolina didn’t only lose contact with her family, she also deliberately cut herself off from what she perceived was misinformation that brought them to backward views. “I shut everything off. Social media, television, everything. I created myself a fake account, and I went down every rabbit hole you can imagine.” In her new research, she realized that the media “that everybody watches” is backed by George Soros and is a tool to “turn this country socialist.”
Whatever political “middle” Carolina came from, it’s behind her now, and with her re-education through alternative sources online, she has begun to see leftist conspiracies everywhere. She shows me the Biden Harris campaign logo, making note of the three red stripes for the “E” in Biden. She then pulls up a Wikipedia page on her phone for “3 Red Banners,” a Maoist ideological slogan from the fifties used to promote Communist policies like the Great Leap Forward. “It’s insane, it’s in their face! Like, I show this to my friends and they [say] ‘Oh we don’t believe it.’ Okay, keep not believing it,” she warns. Carolina also consumes content from Glenn Beck’s (aka the guy who was too crazy for Fox News) outlet The Blaze, where she learned the left’s sinister post-election plans: “They have a manifesto of what they want to do to America, and to the people, and it reads almost like Hitler’s thing. They want to put capitalists up against the wall and shoot them in the forehead.”
Paired with Carolina’s acquired paranoia of everything leftist is a religious faith in our current president. She calls him “anointed,” a term I remember hearing at a Trump megachurch rally a couple of weeks ago. “I have a really good feeling about him winning,” she says with a hopeful smile. “It’s all about keeping this country free.” In an average of the latest polls in this state, Biden leads by just over a point, well within the margin of error.
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