The Villages Retirement Community is viewed as a Republican mecca, a sprawling assortment of 55-plus housing and entertainment that’s seen its clout in GOP politics rapidly expand.
Located mainly in northeast Sumter County, The Villages is unique for its sheer size. The census region of The Villages is over 30 square miles, with an estimated population of 80,000. Sumter County, pre-Villages, was one of many lower-populated rural counties with a 1980s population of just 20,000. Thanks almost entirely to The Villages, the county population now is around 130,000. Between 2010 and 2020, Sumter County grew by 39%, the largest growth in the nation, records show. The community has expanded into neighboring Lake and Marion Counties, though the vast majority remains in Sumter.
The Villages as a GOP-leaning retiree destination is a direct inversion of retiree politics of the past. Florida used to be the premier destination for New York and New Jersey retirees, many of them Jewish Democrats. These communities dominated politics in cities like Miami Beach and Boca Raton. Indeed, Broward County and many retiree havens were known for their “condo commandos” – dedicated older activists who made and broke local politicians.
In recent years, however, Florida has seen its retiree population shift from the New York metropolitan area to the Midwest. And those retirees are much more Republican-leaning. The rise of The Villages is the result of this shift, and just like decades before in South Florida, the expanding retiree communities are rapidly dominating their local political scene.
The Villages first flexed political muscle in a 2004 referendum. Before then, Sumter County elected its 5-member commission by individual districts. Villages residents, and the developers who were looking to expand the growing community, pushed a referendum called “One Sumter.” The measure aimed to move the county to at-large elections.
Opponents of the change argued that such a move would give The Villages, which was rapidly increasing its share of the county vote totals, potential control of all five districts. The referendum passed, 51%-49%, with Villages residents giving over 80% support and non-Villages precincts giving less than 20% support. That same year, George W. Bush would become the first – but not the last – Republican candidate for president to hold a campaign event in The Villages.
Since that year, the political strength of the community has only grown. Today, The Villages make up a vast majority of the population of Sumter County. Over 75% of voters come from The Villages. Voter registration data from 2012 to present shows The Villages adding nearly 30,000 new voters compared to 5,000 in the rest of the county. These retirees are overwhelmingly Republican; as a result, their influence in Republican primaries only continues to grow.
(It is worth noting that The Villages is also where four people have now been charged with voter fraud for attempting to cast multiple ballots in the 2020 presidential election, two of whom have already pleaded guilty.)
As I began working on maps and graphs for Florida’s new congressional districts, the data out of the 11th district, which covers The Villages, really stood out. This map of the 2020 GOP primary votes by precinct shows The Villages clear from space. Thanks to that large block of GOP votes, Sumter County makes up nearly 40% of the primary in a solidly Republican district. This is the kind of influence the Sumter County of the 1980s could never dream of.
The Villages alone make up 35% of GOP votes in the 11th Congressional District. They make up 32% of the GOP primary for state Senate District 11; where they must compete with deep-red Citrus and Hernando counties. Finally, in state House District 52, The Villages make up a whopping 71% of the likely GOP primary votes. At this point, no GOP candidate in the area dares to defy the wishes of the community.
While the local power of the community grows, the national attention has expanded as well. The Villages was one community used by pundits to highlight GOP-leaning seniors' views on COVID mitigation policies. Many pundits speculated President Joe Biden’s likely improvement with seniors would aid him in Florida. While Biden would not win Florida, he would improve the Democratic share of the vote in The Villages, while the rural precincts trended further red. The Villages would, of course, remain solidly in the GOP column. The vote-total increases from 2016 to 2020 also highlight the expansion of The Villages in its southern wing.
The political strength of The Villages continued to be on display locally in 2020. That August, all three county commissioners up for re-election lost their Republican primaries. The elections revolved around financial issues, namely the raising of property tax. Incumbent Al Butler lost District 1 to Gary Search; incumbent Don Burgess lost District 3 to Craig Estep, and incumbent Steve Printz lost District 5 to Oren Miller. The District 5 contest was a three-way fight. All three races reveal a significant geographic divide in the primary, with all three incumbents doing significantly worse in The Villages than in the more rural precincts.
In the races for Districts 1 and 3, the incumbents got around 48% of the vote in the rural counties, but just 34% of the vote in The Villages. District 5’s three-way race saw the incumbent lose the rural precincts by 4% but lose The Villages by 27%. Considering 85% of Sumter’s primary vote came from The Villages, those incumbent commissioners stood no chance at reelection. You either win in The Villages, or you are finished in Sumter politics.
The Villages is part of Florida’s political identity, and it will only continue to grow in influence. As Florida is perceived more as a GOP state, the drive of GOP retirees to flock here will only grow. This means growth for The Villages, as well as other expanding retirement communities across Florida. And with that growth will come more political influence.
Matthew Isbell is a Democratic data consultant and redistricting expert who writes about Florida politics at mcimaps.com and on Substack.