THE VILLAGES--Lifelong Republican Linda Fogg pauses sometimes while explaining how she became a Hillary Clinton supporter.
A proud Texan and former docent at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, Fogg has never voted for a Democrat for president. But there she was last week on the porch of a Panera Bread restaurant in one of Florida’s reddest communities sporting a “Republicans for Hillary” T-shirt -- and inviting passersby to join her club.
“I agonized literally for months,” Fogg said about her transition away from Trump and his “serious character flaws." She considering supporting Libertarian Gary Johnson before finally settling on Clinton.
“I thought I would be voting for Johnson until I realized in a swing state, that vote would be wasted,” she said. “What I really needed to do to oppose Trump was to vote for Hillary Clinton.”
Fogg and her small but growing band of disaffected Republicans is a potential sign of real trouble for the GOP nominee in the Sunshine State, where polls show Clinton widening her lead. Political handicappers say Trump must win Florida to claim victory on Nov. 8.
Trump is faring poorly among blacks, a group that wasn't going to support him anyway. He’s also struggling with Hispanics compared to previous GOP nominees, given his abrasive comments about immigrants and Mexicans. And his relatively tepid showing among female voters is expected to worsen following release of a 2005 Access Hollywood tape in which Trump talks about groping women.
The real estate mogul hopes to compensate with support from white men and older voters. There are plenty of both at The Villages, a fast-growing, affluent collection of golf courses and manicured communities located about an hour northwest of Orlando.
As Fogg spoke, golf carts buzzed around Sumter Landing, a town square with a quaint New England look where prominent Republicans have held campaign rallies. President George W. Bush came here in 2004. More recently, 2008 GOP nominee John McCain his running mate, Sarah Palin, paid visits, as did former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Sumter County has a higher median age -- 66.6 -- than any other county in the country. In 2012, GOP presidential candidate took 67 percent of the county's vote. But Steve Hendrickson, a moderate Republican who has lived in The Villages for nearly 20 years, said he’s not sensing the same vibe for Trump.
There aren’t nearly as many Trump yard signs, for example. And while some of Hendrickson's golf buddies are squarely behind the billionaire, Hendrickson said Romney had a broader following.
“There never was 'Republicans for Obama,'” the former Lockheed and IBM executive from upstate New York said as he sat with other members of Fogg’s club of GOP dissenters.
Fogg estimates her group numbers a few dozen, though the recently released tape of Trump’s comments has spurred others to consider joining.
There's no chance a majority of voters in The Villages, which spreads into Lake and Marion counties, will support Clinton, But if Trump doesn’t completely dominate Clinton there, he’s in “huge trouble,” said David Johnson, a veteran of Florida Republican campaigns who runs a political consulting business in Tallahassee.
“He has to have higher turnout there,” Johnson said, “He has to have high turnout in the Panhandle and Jacksonville and those traditional Republican areas to overcome what he may very well lose among what we used to call soccer moms.”
Johnson notes that Clinton has her own worries, including soft support among millennials and blacks. Both are key Democratic constituencies that aren't as enthusiastic for the former secretary of state as they were for President Obama.
But a recent analysis by a Republican firm suggests Trump faces a tougher challenge than Clinton in avoiding defections in Florida.
Statewide, Clinton could peel off as many as 890,071 “reluctant Republicans” compared to 532,779 “disaffected Democrats” who might vote for Trump, the study by Deep Root Analytics says.
Still, being a Clinton supporter in a Republican stronghold isn't much fun.
Members of Fogg’s group talked about relationships gone sour due to those increasingly rare occasions when politics enters the conversation.
Diane McCrone, 64, remembers being ridiculed in 1960 for wearing a "Nixon for President" button to her elementary school in Cleveland. She's experienced similar criticism at The Villages for telling friends and acquaintances that Trump's comments disparaging the disabled and Mexicans have driven her to vote for Clinton.
“I just came form a dance class and they said, ‘Where are you going?’ and I said, 'I’m going to a meeting of Republicans for Hillary,'” said McCrone, a retired nurse with a Mexican-American grandchild. “They all started chuckling and making fun of me like, ‘Are you crazy?’”
Fogg used to ask herself the same question.
“If you had told me eight months ago, things are going to wind up where you’re going to be voting for Hillary Clinton, I would have said you’re nuts, absolutely nuts," she said. "But here we are.”