Shaun Dunn says sales of Trump merchandise are a good indicator of how well the President will do in Florida. The polls say otherwise. (Photo by John C. Cotey)

If local merchandise sales are any indication, Donald Trump is headed to a landslide re-election on Nov. 3.

That’s how Shaun Dunn sees it, anyway. The businessman  runs a Trump tent right next to his Joe Biden tent at the entrance to The Grove in Wesley Chapel, and says the Republican president is outselling the Democratic former VP 10-to-1. He is admittedly not a political scientist or pollster, but he is a numbers guy, and he thinks they are saying something.

“If there really is 50 percent support of Biden, that tent should really have way more people,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned it just really shows you that the silent majority is more than you think.”

Based on his sales and the interest people stopping by have shown, he thinks Wesley Chapel is Trump Country. Memorabilia like Trump-branded magnets, yard signs, hats, coins, mugs and yes, even masks to protect you from the spread of coronavirus, are flying off his tables. 

Flags and the iconic red Make America Great Again hats are his best sellers, and Dunn says he has sold 250 life-size cutouts of Trump – at $75 a pop – since opening his stand on Sept. 1.

Before he could open his Trump tent at The Grove, however, he had to agree to open a Biden tent as well.

 Mark Gold, who is developing The Grove, insisted Dunn do a tent for each candidate, as he didn’t want to get caught in any political quandary.

“I told him if he wants to do one, he does both,” Gold says. “To be fair.”

Dunn says he was fine with the idea. In fact, he kind of liked it.

“I got to thinking about it, and you know, that’s probably the right thing to do,” he says. “That way, everybody gets a chance.”

In fact, Dunn has opened Biden tents next to his Trump tents at his Holiday Mall location, also owned by Gold, and in Lakeland.

The Biden tent at The Grove was his first, and he says he has never seen any others in his travels.

Suli Torres works the Biden tent. She jokes that she got the short end of the stick, but since she will be voting for Biden, she is fine with it. 

“Everyone is pretty excited to see me, I’ve even had people offer me food and drinks,” she says, then adding, with a chuckle, “maybe they feel sorry for me.”

Torres was engaged in a conversation with a customer about climate change when we visited on a Monday morning, although that conversation was interrupted by a young woman wanting to purchase a Biden hat. At the Trump tent, though, Dunn was busy ringing up a pink “Women For Trump” t-shirt and a matching pink hat for one customer, and a mask and a coffee mug for another

Does the popularity of the Trump tent concern Torres when it comes to the Nov. 3 election?

Not really. “Florida is a Republican (controlled) state, so I’m okay with it,” she says. “I will cast my vote and hope for the best.”

Dunn eschews political talk at either tent. He says his employees are trained not to get political with customers. He is unwilling to debate Trump vs. Biden, and says he is only there to make money.

“They all want to talk politics,” he says. “I don’t say nothing. Basically, I tell them ‘I hear ya,’ because I don’t want to be getting involved. I like somebody, but I prefer not to say. I’ll vote for who I like. But, this is just a business for me.”

 The one thing the Trump and Biden tents, which are spaced about 10 feet apart, do have in common? The amount of vitriol those working them have had to endure.

Due to the toxicity of the country’s political climate, Dunn and Torres each say they have been sworn at and threatened by people driving by or leaving after purchasing something from the other tent. 

Financially, the Biden tent only makes enough money to cover what Dunn pays his employees and the rent. The Trump tent has been far more lucrative.

Dunn says four of his former employees left him to start their own Trump tents, and are all doing well. He wishes he had started selling it sooner. “I’d be able to retire by now,” he says.

However, do sales equal votes? Even in 2016, the Trump merchandising operation was a juggernaut, and he lost the popular vote by roughly 3-million nationwide to former First Lady Hillary Clinton, while claiming a narrow 70,000-vote edge in crucial battleground states Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to give him a victory in the electoral college. (Trump won Florida by 112,000 votes; he won Pasco County by 52,000).

This election, the polls are favoring Biden — by larger margins than they favored Clinton — but Trump gear is just as prevalent, if not moreso, than four years ago. How those numbers will add up on election day remains to be seen.

The only math that really matters, however, is the nationwide final tally of votes. Record turnout is expected all across the country.

Dunn is likely correct about Wesley Chapel, and more broadly Pasco County, being Trump Country. Republicans have unanimously controlled the five-person County Commission for many years, and there are currently 159,127 registered Republicans, or 26,100 more than in 2016.

Meanwhile, there are only 118,127 registered Democrats in Pasco, an increase of only 10,800.

There also are 109,682 registered voters who did not list a party affiliation, an increase of 27,000 from the 2016 election.

One thing that is certain: Pasco County will vote. Presidential election voter turnout has averaged well over 70 percent since 1984, according to the website. In 2016, the voter turnout was 73 percent.

In fact, residents were voting long before early voting even started on Oct. 19, as more than 70,000 mail-in votes already had been received, accounting for 18 percent of all registered voters in Pasco.

And, with this election expected to break turnout records across the country, Tami Bentley, the director of voter administration for Pasco County, says they are ready not just for more voters, but more socially-distant voters, due to Covid-19 concerns.

“We have worked closely with Pasco County to secure some larger early voting facilities,” Bentley says, like the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County.

In addition, mail drop boxes will be posted at every early voting site for the first time, hopefully assuaging fears about mail-in ballot voter fraud being perpetuated on social media and by President Trump himself.

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco and Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley also put out a joint statement promising a safe environment at all early voting locations, all of which will be manned by Poll Deputies.

Interesting Local Pasco Races

While Trump-Biden tops the ballot and is driving the expected record voter turnout, other races that have local implications include:

Superintendent of Schools: Kurt Browning, the Republican who easily won his primary,  is running for his third term against Bayonet Point Middle School teacher Cynthia Thompson, who says the District needs an educator to fix it.

State Senator District 20: Republican Danny Burgess resigned as executive director of the Florida Department of Veteran’s Affairs in June to run against Democrat Kathy Lewis in this special election to replace Tom Lee, who retired. 

State Representative District 38: Republican Randy Maggard won the 2018 election to replace Burgess, and is defending his seat against Democrat Brian Staver. 

Pasco County Commission, District 3: Incumbent Republican Kathryn Starkey, first elected in 2012, has raised more than $200,000 in her bid to keep her seat against Democrat Jessica Stempien, who has raised $30,000.

Pasco County Commission, District 5: Incumbent Republican Jack Mariano is seeking his fifth term (he was first elected in 2004) against Democrat Brandi Geoit and independent Victor Rodriguez.

Florida 12th U.S. Congressional District: Republican incumbent Gus Bilirakis, who replaced his father Mike (who served for 25 years) when he was first elected to the District 9 seat in 2007, is trying for another term in District 12 (which he has represented since 2013)against Democrat Kimberly Walker. 

Early voting continues through Oct. 31, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Vote By Mail drop boxes are available at each early voting site, including the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus (3021 Sports Coast Way), AdventHealth Center Ice (3173 Cypress Ridge Blvd.) and the New River Library (34043 S.R. 54). 

The general election is Tuesday, November 3, when polls will be open 7 a.m.-7 p.m.. Wesley Chapel has 13 polling places, which can be found by visiting or by checking your voter registration information.

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