Battleground Counties: Hillsborough County, Florida

One of my favorite topics this election season are the Battleground Counties that will truly decide this election.  We’ve covered a few of these so far and here is an extensive look at one of the more important players due to the electoral votes at stake: Hillsborough County, Florida which includes Tampa, home of the Republicans National Convention this year.  Travelers advisory warning: this write-up is full of a lot of great data.  But the author veers off into wholly inaccurate information and some partisan opinion writing when it comes to Obama’s organizational operation in the state.  It’s unfortunate because these inaccuracies and biased rhetoric mar what is otherwise a great look at an all-important Battleground County:

In 2008, Hillsborough became the only Florida county that had backed Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 to flip to Barack Obama. A surge of minority voters, young people, and independents helped Obama wring 68,000 more votes out of Hillsborough than John Kerry had, propelling him to a 7-point victory over Republican nominee John McCain in the county. How closely divided is Hillsborough? Of the 1.95 million votes cast in presidential elections since 1992, Republican nominees won only about 14,000 more than Democratic nominees. The outcome in the Tampa Bay market has run within 2 percentage points of the statewide result in every presidential election since 1992. The campaign here will pit Obama’s organizational power and his capacity to take advantage of the region’s shifting demographics against Romney’s message of fiscal prudence, backed by the state’s all-powerful GOP establishment, and played against the backdrop of a still-sputtering local economy.

How South Florida’s eastern and western counties achieved their ideological split

Liberal Northeasterners headed south on I-95 to Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, turning South Florida into a Democratic stronghold, while folks from Michigan and Ohio took I-75 to Florida’s west coast. The influx bestowed on Hillsborough County a Midwestern sensibility that’s more practical than ideological.

Fiscal conservatism in the county

In one obvious sign of the county’s penny-pinching mind-set, tea party activists help lead a successful battle in 2010 against a 1-cent increase in the sales tax to pay for light rail and other transportation projects in the county. The Democratic nominee for governor that year, Alex Sink, hailed from Hillsborough County but won here by only 10,000 votes. That slim margin of victory helped Republican Rick Scott, a former corporate executive who promised to create 700,000 jobs in seven years, narrowly win statewide.

Targeting Tampa

Obama campaigned heavily in Hillsborough in 2008 on a simple promise with broad appeal: to cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. His most recent trip to Florida—the 16th since taking office—was to the Port of Tampa last month, where he touted his trade policy. The GOP picked Tampa to host its 2012 nominating convention. Pumping millions of dollars into the local economy isn’t a bad way to remind voters that you’re on their side. In a close election, a post-convention boost in central Florida may help put Romney over the top.

Democrats argue demographics

Democrats point to demographic trends here and throughout the country that are pumping up the share of the electorate that isn’t white and that leans their way.

Republican’s “Masada”

County Republican Chairman Art Wood goes so far as to call Hillsborough’s improbable support for Obama in 2008 his “personal Masada,” referring to the Roman siege on an Israeli mountaintop that led the Jewish rebels to commit mass suicide. “I was deeply depressed by the outcome in 2008, and I will use it as a rallying point in 2012,” he said. “That’s not going to happen again.”

Obama 2008 vs 2012

Democrats who see Obama’s 2008 win here as the start of a trend and Republicans who see it as an aberration may both have it wrong. Obama’s 2008 campaign in Hillsborough mixed art and science like never before. The art—a resonant message promising better times delivered by a fresh-faced candidate who connected with wide swaths of voters—is something that can’t be replicated in 2012. An unemployment rate above 8 percent, a trillion-dollar budget deficit, and the slings and arrows of three-plus years of presidential fortunes trumps hope and change. Calling Obama’s victory in Hillsborough an anomaly ignores the science—the unprecedented amount of money and shoe leather and the know-how invested in the Tampa area, where his state campaign was headquartered. After years of Democrats playing to the party faithful in South Florida, Obama’s campaign charted a new course by targeting the middle-of-the-road voters in the middle of the state. He made more visits and aired more ads in the homestretch of the campaign in the Tampa Bay media market, which includes Hillsborough and surrounding counties, than any other part of the state.

Obama’s recipe for success

“Florida is won in the middle by voters who are not offended by either political party,” said Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who masterminded Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida. “The recipe for winning Hillsborough is similar to the recipe for winning the state and winning the country: increase black and Hispanic turnout, increase youth turnout, and persuade independent voters. Pull the legs out of any one of those, and you’re toast.” Schale crunched the numbers and found that Hispanic voters, who were 11 percent of the county’s electorate in 2008, now make up 13 percent. No wonder the Obama campaign is airing a new Spanish-language television ad featuring a Tampa Bay campaign volunteer.

Obama’s vaunted ground game

The [Obama] headquarters has returned to Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, one of 26 offices—and counting—across the state. An office in Panama City slated to open on Saturday will be No. 27. Romney has zero offices in the state; his three makeshift quarters from the January primary are long closed. The recently anointed presumptive nominee is only now turning his attention to Florida, although the state and national parties have started laying the groundwork for his campaign. The president’s advantage looks even bigger when one considers that he did not start putting together his 2008 campaign in Florida until June. Obama had been boycotting the state because its early presidential primary flouted national-party rules.

[Unfortunately for the author, 23 Romney Victory Offices and a headquarters in Tampa were announced three weeks ago.  How inconvenient. And Obama outmaneuvered McCain in 2008 starting his effort in June but Romney is allegedly starting in June and the author finds Obama’s advantage looking even more overwhelming. Only later in the piece do we find out that Romney has been campaigning in the state since 2007. Sigh. Finally, I believe the  author meant Romney was boycotting Florida since Obama didn’t really have a primary.]

This cycle, Obama essentially started building his reelection campaign under the auspices of the Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America project after he took office in 2009. Ever since he officially launched his reelection bid one year ago, volunteers have participated in thousands of phone banks, voter-registration drives, canvasses, and house parties. It all adds up to a sweeping grassroots network in which the campaign is constantly “building capacity” and recruiting new “neighborhood team leaders.”

Obama advantages dwindling with unemployment and housing looming large

But unlike in 2008, when Obama outspent McCain by more than 3-to-1 in Florida, Republican super PACs could outgun him in 2012. And this time, instead of running with the winds of the outgoing Bush administration at his back, Obama is facing the headwinds of a punishing economy. Unemployment in Hillsborough County in February, the most recent month for which data are available, was 9 percent. That’s higher than the national average of 8.3 percent, although lower than the 11.8 percent high in Hillsborough on Obama’s watch in July 2010. When the president took office, county unemployment was 8.9 percent. While the jobs forecast is improving, the real-estate market is still in the tank. Core-Logic, a data-analysis firm, reported a 12.4 percent foreclosure rate in Hillsborough and three surrounding counties in January, compared with 12.1 percent in the state and 3.4 percent nationwide. The foreclosure inventory is bigger than when Obama took office because property values have yet to recover, leaving increasing numbers of homeowners under water, anchored to heavy mortgages.

Still a tight race

More than half of the Florida voters in a recent Fox News poll said they don’t see signs that the economy is improving. Still, Obama posted an 8-point edge in the percentage of voters who view him favorably, compared with Romney. The survey and others have found an essentially tied race that will be decided by fence-sitters like Zusman. The mother of two is a Democrat who voted for Obama but hasn’t decided if she will support him again. She doesn’t think he made good on his promise to work with Republicans; she’s worried that Romney will pander to the GOP’s conservative wing. “The Republican Party loses me when it comes to social issues,” Zusman said. “It’s like they believe in small government until you get pregnant.” Several polls have found a gender gap working in Obama’s favor, following a heated debate during the Republican primary over the administration’s efforts to require religious-affiliated institutions to cover birth control in their health insurance plans. Democrats are also plugging Obama’s advantage with Hispanic voters, pointing to Romney’s hard line against illegal immigration.

Romney’s opportunity

  • Unemployment and foreclosure rates exceed the national average
  • Issues like gas prices, not gay marriage, are expected to motivate voters in 2012
  • Romney’s moderate record on social issues such as abortion—a liability in primaries dominated by Christian conservatives—could be an asset for him in the general election, along with his business experience
  • Romney has a better shot at drawing Spanish-speaking voters in Hillsborough County than he may have elsewhere because most of the Hispanic voters here are Puerto Rican and Cuban-American, for whom immigration policy is of interest but not a priority
  • The statewide political establishment is solidly Republican. Of the six statewide officeholders in Florida, only one, Sen. Bill Nelson, is a Democrat
  • Gov. Scott’s ratings may be even lower than Obama’s in Florida, but more-popular and dynamic figures such as Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush will serve as important ambassadors for Romney
  • Rubio is considered a top contender for the vice presidential nomination, and he has already taken a star turn with Romney by campaigning recently in another battleground state, Pennsylvania.
  • Bush released a statement criticizing Obama’s trade policy in advance of his recent speech at the Port of Tampa.

Familiar territory

Romney has been campaigning in the state since February 2007, when Florida was poised to schedule its earliest primary in history and Romney was launching his first White House bid. He came in second in the 2008 primary with 31 percent of the vote, 5 percentage points behind McCain. Romney captured roughly the same share of the vote in Hillsborough County. But this year, he garnered 48 percent of the vote in Hillsborough in the Jan. 31 primary, surpassing his 46 percent average statewide.

The I-4 Corridor

“The voter in the I-4 corridor tends to be focused on issues of immediacy and what’s going on nationally with the economy,” said Republican consultant Brett Doster, who led Bush’s 2004 reelection bid and Romney’s 2012 primary campaign in Florida. Doster partly attributed George W. Bush’s win in Hillsborough after the 2001 terrorist attacks to the substantial population of active and retired military. The headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base, is just south of Tampa. Via satellite from the base, Bush offered troops around the world an upbeat assessment of the war in Iraq in June 2004. The year before, he invited country-music star Toby Keith to perform there. “You’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.,” Keith belted out to a cheering crowd.

Unfortunately I had to stop blogging here because again, a truly amazing factual error appeared where the author claims Romney has not visited the state since the primary when Romney was just in the state the day before the publish date.  And even if this article was submitted well-ahead of time, the scheduled Romney appearance was national campaign news and announced long ago. It pains me when a writer deeply diminishes an otherwise excellent article with either incompetent or biased factual errors — both of which are unacceptably damning.  Sigh (again).


4 Trackbacks

  1. […] media representations to the contrary, we are seeing Victory offices opening in Battleground states across the county. Even earlier this […]

  2. […] As with most Battleground states Florida has its voter rich Battleground Counties like Hillsborough County in the Southwest and Orange County at the top of the I-4 corridor. The Tampa Bay Times took a deep […]

  3. By The Battle for Florida « Battleground Watch on August 30, 2012 at 9:02 am

    […] Hillsborough County — The Bellwether: neutral Tampa Both Democrats and Republicans can do a little worse in one region if they do a little better in another. But in general, carrying Tampa has been the final step for statewide winners. In every election since 1960 the presidential candidate who carried Florida has also carried Tampa’s Hillsborough County. Economically and ethnically, Hillsborough County is a fairly good microcosm of America. The county’s Democratic core in Tampa is balanced by the city’s Republican suburbs, and recent Hispanic growth has been accompanied by exurban growth, maintaining the county’s partisan equilibrium. […]

  4. […] #1 Hillsborough County […]

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