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Century Village retirement community loves Clinton, but flirts with Trump in key Florida primary

At Century Village in West Palm Beach, a reliably left-leaning bloc of active and mostly Jewish voters favours Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But there’s also a Republican name in the mix for Tuesday’s Florida primary: Donald Trump.

Traditionally Democratic elderly community infamous for 2000 ‘butterfly ballot’ fiasco

Jack Kaufman, 95, a resident at the Century Village retirement community in West Palm Beach, Fla., has committed to voting for Hillary Clinton in Tuesday's Florida primary. The Sunshine State's senior citizens are a highly-coveted and active voting bloc. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Life moves at a gentler gait in West Palm Beach's Century Village.

White-haired residents here spend hours rolling bocce balls, watching the duck ponds, or snoozing on poolside chairs. Streets empty at 5 p.m. for early-bird specials while the sun still hangs high.

The balmy retirement utopia doesn't exactly feel like a hotbed of political action. But as Tuesday's Florida primary nears, voters don't get much more serious than Century Village's year-round bloc of nearly 9,000 mostly Democratic, mostly Jewish seniors.

Residents at Century Village in West Palm Beach assess their scores during a bocce ball match at the retirement community. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

At the Village Clubhouse, some people come for the bingo. Others prefer to play mahjong in the games room, partake in the Yiddish Vinkl club, or come to dance cheek-to-cheek to karaoke hits from the Greatest Generation.

But the morning of March 15 will be devoted to one activity — voting.

"They come at 7 o'clock in the morning, when the polls open," said Joy Vestal, 78. "These are old people. They're up already. They're here first thing in the morning, lining up to get right here in the big room to vote."

Vestal expects her neighbours to fill the Century Village Clubhouse, many bringing walkers.

A 2012 photo shows U.S. President Barack Obama greeting residents of Century Village in West Palm Beach during his re-election campaign four years ago. Once again, the retirement community is a focal point for Democrats ahead of Tuesday's primary. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

They're a valuable and dependable electorate. High turnout at polls is a hallmark of this older demographic, and Florida has the nation's largest proportion of senior citizens. Of the state's 19.9 million residents, 3.4 million people (17.3 per cent) are 65 and older, according to a 2015 University of Florida survey.

"We come out every time to vote. Because we are so important, and we know that," Vestal says. "Every election. National, state, county. We're there."

Century Village so typifies a certain kind of aspirational Florida lifestyle that it's often jokingly referred to as "Cemetery Village." It's a nickname that some residents don't care for.

Joy Vestal, 78, says Florida's seniors take the civic duty of voting very seriously, and show up in droves on election days. The Democratic Party has taken notice of this elderly voting bloc, and has courted Florida retirees at Century Village for several election cycles. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

But don't be surprised if the name of the gated community sounds familiar.

Site of 'butterfly ballots' fiasco in 2000

Century Village voters played a role in the 2000 presidential election during the "butterfly ballots" snafu, in which confusing punch cards caused thousands of retirees to inadvertently support third-party candidate Patrick Buchanan. A Florida recount was ordered and Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore.

An example of the infamous 'butterfly ballot' punch cards that Century Village voters used during the 2000 U.S. presidential election. The design of the ballot confused some voters, who inadvertently cast votes for Pat Buchanan. (Public domain)

"Oh god, that was awful," recalls Dave Israel, the 67-year-old president of the union that governs Century Village. "I voted on that ballot. I didn't vote for Buchanan, but it confused me a little."

In this year's Florida primary, many in the the 704-acre community say they will back Democrats, specifically front-runner Hillary Clinton. Several others have already voted for Clinton via early or absentee ballots.

"I think she's the most qualified," Jack Kaufman says of Clinton during a recent Clubhouse karaoke night.

Sid Einbinder, 78, right, dances with Corky Kachel, 92, during a karaoke night at West Palm Beach's Century Village retirement community. The Village, which has a population of 15,000 in the high season and about 9,000 residents year-round, leans Democratic. Einbinder says he will vote for Hillary Clinton at Tuesday's primary. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

As a singer on stage belted out 1958's Poor Little Fool, the 95-year-old agreed that Sanders's opening up about his Jewish faith might hold some appeal with a certain set of voters in the Florida Jewish retirement community.

The Vermont senator is the first Jewish presidential candidate to have ever won a caucus or primary.

"Sanders spoke up about [his Judaism], which surprised me. He's a good man," Kaufman said. "He wants a revolution, which we need, but he's not electable."

Hedy Wilder, 68, is voting for Sanders. She finds his anti-Wall Street message compelling, much more so than his Judaism or any connection to Sanders losing ancestors in the Holocaust.

Residents of the Century Village retirement community in Deerfield Beach, Fla., leave a polling station after voting, in 2004. (Gary I Rothstein/Reuters)

"His Jewish religion isn't what's important," she says. "He's an honest man and he means well for the country."

Israel, the administrator at the Village's union, allows that the Jewish vote can sometimes be counted on. That's been known to be the case in previous judicial elections for the circuit court.

In those elections, Israel said, he's asked residents why they backed certain candidates. Did they study the judge's case decisions? Had they heard any speeches?

'A nice Jewish name'

"And they would say, 'Oh, he had a nice Jewish name.' And I would say that's not right," he says.

A large proportion of Century Villagers are New York transplants, and though Israel estimates the Village was more than 80 per cent Jewish, demographics have shifted to include African-Americans, part-time French-Canadian Catholic residents and a sizeable Chinese population.

Dave Israel, President of the United Civic Organization at Century Village, displays his voting card. Israel is a Donald Trump supporter in a community that largely leans Democratic. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Political alignments may have changed, too.

Players on the bocce courts expressed support for Trump, and dancers at the recent Clubhouse karaoke night said they were undecided between Trump and Republican candidate Ted Cruz.

For his part, Israel backs Trump. He believes the billionaire to be a strong Republican who would be a confident decision-maker in the Oval Office with regard to national defence.

"The weight of that office, the information that becomes available to the president, the plethora of brilliant advisors. If he got elected, he would change," Israel believes.

Paul Rosenberg sits by a lake at West Palm Beach's Century Village reading the Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism. Rosenberg, 66, believes Democrat Bernie Sanders may get a bump from Jewish voters, though he is leaning towards supporting Republican front-runner Donald Trump. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The vice-president at the union, Barbara Cornish, also leans towards Trump.

As a Republican, though, Cornish realizes she's an outlier in Century Village. A Democratic club at the Village has some 3,000 members, she says, "but you can hardly even get a Republican club going here."

Southern Florida's retirees may lean Democratic, but drive half an hour north to the elderly communities in Jupiter, and — somewhat appropriately — it's a whole other Republican world.

Seniors dance during a karaoke night at the Century Village Clubhouse. Senior citizen voters at the retirement centre lean Democratic, though several said they are also considering Donald Trump. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

This year, board members governing the Village's operations have put call-outs to the Clinton and Trump camps to give on-site speeches. Neither candidate has responded, though several residents said they consider Trump to be a "neighbour", as his Mar-A-Lago golf club sits nearby.

Israel is confident a Trump invite will be accepted, especially if he wins the Republican nomination.

"Trump lives right across the bridge," he says. "The game ain't over yet."

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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