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'Snowbirds' getting the attention of Republicans in Michigan and Florida

Retirees are expected to play a pivotal role in this fall’s election.

Republican Party leaders in Michigan and Florida are particularly interested in one unique set of voters - the so-called Snowbirds.

Snowbird is the term used for northern retirees who spend the winters in Florida.

Tens of thousands of Michigan snowbirds follow the same migratory pattern every year:   Flying south along I-75 until they reach an archipelago of senior living and retiree communities, which stretch across central Florida, from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico near Tampa to the grandchild friendly magnet of Disneyworld in Orlando.

There are millions of Republican and Independent voters in Florida and each one will get a telephone call, or two, or more, from a room on the north side of St. Petersburg.

Chet Renfro is with the Pinellas County Republican Party.   He’s showing me around one of three phone bank rooms the party operates.   The room’s empty right now.   The volunteers who man the phone bank have taken a break for lunch and a little face to face campaigning on the street.

“We do a lot of walking.   Some areas don’t allow any door to door campaigning what-so-ever.   They can’t cut off the telephones,” says Renfro,  “So we do use telephones a little bit.    The northern office and the southern office….they’re all equipped with 12 to 15 phones each. So these phones stay busy constantly calling people.”

A lot of those calls are going to retirees.

Retirees are a key voting bloc in Florida, says Seth McKee, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.

“If you look at the rate of participation, it’s substantially higher for seniors,” says McKee,  “If you look specifically at Republicans…they also have any older electorate. So seniors are a very intrinsically part of that electorate.”

McKee says Florida’s winter retiree havens have fewer and fewer of the New Deal generation who tended to vote Democratic.   But he suggests even many of the staunchly Republican retirees in Florida may hesitate to vote for the GOP ticket if they think it will jeopardize the future of Medicare.

There is another concern for Republican Party officials.   And it’s related to the annual migration of the Snowbirds.   The snowbirds tend to leave their homes in the north in mid to late October and settle in their Florida nests by the middle of November.    This makes this small, but potentially pivotal voting block difficult to reach right at the peak of the election season.

In Michigan, the state Republican Party tries to get absentee ballots in the hands of snowbirds before they leave town.    

“We keep in mind that a lot of folks are going to get that absentee ballot…turn around…mail it back in and head out of town,”  says Matt Frendewey, a state GOP party spokesman,  “That means we got to make sure we have accurate information…and that we contact them quickly. And a lot of that goes into voter ID.”

Frendewey says the party knows it only has a small window of time to get the votes of snowbirds before they fly south.

Back in Florida, Chet Renfro says the Republican Party does everything it can to get legal snowbird voters to the polls in the Sunshine state.  Though he admits some of those Snowbird voters themselves might violate the law, by voting both in Florida and their northern home states.

Renfro believes it’s not many votes, maybe in the hundreds.    But that could be enough to have a major impact on the presidential election.

“It would make enough to win…in 2000…put it that way,” says Renfro,  “When we only won by 200 and some odd votes.   I think that there’s enough of them that do it that is could have swung that vote either way.”

That vote in 2000 that Renfro is referring to is the presidential election in which George W. Bush’s margin of victory in Florida was a little more than 500 votes.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Radio since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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