The ultimate Fla bellwether county: Is his base enough to deliver Fla to Obama?
Early voters Thursay at Falkenburg Road. Photo by Edmund D. Fountain
We've been profiling key Florida counties to watch in this presidential election as part of our Battleground Florida series, including Osceola, Duval, Volusia, and Miami-Dade. The final installment? Hillsborough:
TAMPA--America's biggest battleground state has 67 counties but only one with an uncanny knack for picking presidents.
Hillsborough is the only Florida county that twice voted for George W. Bush and then flipped to Barack Obama in 2008. It's the only county that can boast of voting for the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1960, except 1992 when Hillsborough voters backed George H.W. Bush.
"If you want to watch Florida, just look at Hillsborough. Whatever trend you see in the state you see it right here,'' said Pam Iorio, the Democratic former Tampa mayor and elections supervisor. "I think we're more important than the whole concept of the I-4 corridor."
And here's something that may be counter-intuitive for a county where Republicans hold five of seven county commission seats and four of five constitutional offices: Hillsborough, Florida's ultimate bellwether, leans Democratic.
No, it doesn't perform that way consistently, but Republicans and Democrats alike say the Hillsborough electorate is decidedly Democratic — with the right candidate.
"Any Republican running countywide in Hillsborough starts out with a standard 6-point deficit," said Sam Rashid, a conservative activist in east Hillsborough.
Why? The urban core of Tampa. Republicans can sweep the county's suburban precincts by comfortable margins, but it's not enough to compensate for the overwhelming margins Democrats can win in heavily African-American and Hispanic precincts in Tampa. When those voters turn out in large numbers, Democrats win; when they don't, Democrats usually lose.
In 2004, about 50,000 African-Americans and 35,000 Hispanic voters in Hillsborough voted. John Kerry lost the county by 7 percentage points and the state. In 2008, nearly 80,000 African-Americans and more than 50,000 Hispanic voters turned out. Obama won the county by 7 percentage points and won the state.
Since 2008, the percentage of Hispanic voters in Hillsborough has climbed from nearly 12 percent to 14 percent. African-Americans account for more than 15 percent of the county's electorate.
"If the African-American vote comes out and the Hispanic vote comes out, then Obama will win again," Iorio said. "If he can bring out that minority vote in substantial numbers then he can afford to lose some of the swing voters."
Any discussion of Hillsborough County is really a discussion of Florida as a whole because it is a near-perfect microcosm of the state, which in turn is a microcosm of America. Be it age, ethnicity, race, suburban, urban, rural, southern, northern, gay, straight, blue-collar, white-collar, military — you name it, Hillsborough has it.
That's why Tampa is a favorite location for corporations and campaigns to conduct focus groups. If a product or message can sell well in Hillsborough, it will sell well in America.
"It's just an amalgamation of America within the confines of one single county,'' said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat. "There are shades and colors and hues in this community that may not exist anywhere else."
Hillsborough highlights one of the biggest questions about this presidential election in Florida: Will it be the base who decides the race, or the swing voters and independents?