Florida has maintained national focus since its prominent place in the 2000 Presidential nail-biter. Although it no longer holds the pole position as the #1 Battleground state in the nation, its high electoral vote count and persuadable voters make the state a prime destination for any candidate expecting to win the Presidency. 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 dive into Duval County in the Northeast which is typically considered GOP country, but there are meaningful trends making Duval very much a Battleground County:
One of Florida’s top battlegrounds, this longtime Republican stronghold is also one of the most confounding and unpredictable electorates you’ll find. Drive 30 minutes from any area in this New South, Navy town and you meet every stereotype imaginable: lifelong, white Democrats with horses and pickups, inner-city African-Americans fretting about street crime, social conservatives in a Baptist church encompassing nine blocks, northeastern retirees in flip-flops on the beach, or socially moderate Starbucks Republicans mingling in trendy restaurants. “It’s one of the most misunderstood counties in Florida,” said Democratic pollster Dave Beattie of Fernandina Beach in Duval. In this bastion of conservatism, the past two Republican mayors of Jacksonville raised taxes and fees significantly, while the new Democratic mayor has tea party activists hailing his fiscal conservatism. It’s a county that statewide Republican candidates routinely win by more than 15 percentage points, but can be nail-bitingly close with the right Democrat on the ballot.
Obama minding the gap
George W. Bush beat John Kerry in Duval by 62,000 votes in 2004 [58% to 42% — 16% difference], while former Jacksonville resident John McCain squeaked past Obama in 2008 by less than 8,000 votes [51% to 49% — 2% difference]. Few people expect President Obama to match his performance from four years ago, however. “His supporters are not going to be as fired up this time,” predicted lawyer Kenneth Boston, inhaling a stogie while sporting a bow tie and a glistening Obama watch at a Jacksonville Beach watering hole. “It’s impossible to match the excitement of last time. It was a first then, it was historic.” The question is not whether Obama can win Duval, but rather how close he can keep it. If the campaign can’t keep Duval closer than 7 or 8 percentage points from Republican Mitt Romney, it becomes harder to make up those votes elsewhere in the state.
African-American vote strength
The African-American vote is key. Nearly 28 percent of Duval’s 530,000 voters are African-Americans who overwhelmingly vote Democratic. The data-driven Obama campaign four years ago saw that tens of thousands of registered black voters hadn’t been showing up at the polls and launched the biggest voter mobilization ever in the area. Obama campaigned in Jacksonville three times in 2008, including the day before Election Day. This year, Obama is ramping it up still more, with one campaign office opened in January and two more to open within weeks. Obama and the first lady have each visited Duval County in the past three months. The administration recently sped up the arrival of a battleship, the USS New York, to Jacksonville’s Naval Station Mayport and fast-tracked a study of deepening Jacksonville’s ship channel.
A tea party Democrat mayor?
Last year, this conservative stronghold elected Democrat Alvin Brown, a former Bill Clinton aide, as Jacksonville’s first African-American mayor. Democrats hailed it as a huge victory for their party, though Brown is no conventional Democrat. A social conservative, pro-business Democrat, Brown had the backing of some high-profile Republicans, including former St. Joe CEO Peter Rummell, and his opponent was a hard right tea party conservative. Over the past year, Brown, 50, has slashed city spending, including his own salary, hammered out money-saving contracts with public unions, and launched initiatives to improve schools and better serve the 240,000 Jacksonville residents with military connections.
Non-partisan and keeping it that way
Brown’s City Hall office includes photos of him with Clinton and Al Gore and former Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown, but the mayor is clear he won’t lift a finger to help Obama in this critical county. He waxed on about accountability, efficiency and the bright future of Jacksonville, while repeatedly steering the conversation away from the presidential race. He declined to say even whether he will vote for Obama or Romney, citing a campaign promise not to get involved in partisan campaigns. His caution speaks volumes about the politics of Jacksonville. But Duval County, like Florida itself, is always changing and it may not be too many years before a Democrat elected countywide there can safely embrace his party.
While national polls suggest Democrats trail Republicans in enthusiasm heading into November, conversations across Duval in recent days found Obama’s base determined to give him a second term. In his east Jacksonville barbershop, 29-year-old Navy veteran and Obama campaign volunteer Maurice Miller presses all his customers to register to vote and turn out in November. Until Obama in 2008, Democrats had never launched a sophisticated and well-organized voter turnout operation in Jacksonville. In terms of November, though, former state GOP chairman Tom Slade of Jacksonville and other Republicans see a GOP electorate far more energized in Duval than four years ago.
Today there are signs that the electorate in the seventh-most populous county in Florida is in the midst of transition. Obama came close to winning four years ago and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson trounced Katherine Harris in Duval in 2006. In the Republican tidal wave of 2010, Democrat Alex Sink lost Duval to Rick Scott by less than 6 percentage points. In 2008, John Crescimbeni became the first Democrat to win a competitive election for countywide office since 1995 when he won a special election for an at-large City Council seat, and he overwhelmingly won re-election last year. Jacksonville Republican consultant Susie Wiles, who ran Scott’s gubernatorial campaign, points to transplants moving to the beaches, south and east Duval as part of the reason politics is changing in the county.