Will Obama win Fla again? Keep an eye on Duval County
We're doing a series of profiles of key Florida counties to watch this election cycle, starting a few weeks ago with Osceola in cental Florida and now Duval County in northeast Florida:
JACKSONVILLE — If ever there's a place to see if Democratic enthusiasm for Barack Obama in 2012 matches that of 2008, it's Duval 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.
"People think that Republicans win here by gigantic margins, that Duval compensates for the Democratic strongholds in South Florida. Republicans do consistently win, but it can be close," Beattie said.
George W. Bush beat John Kerry in Duval by 62,000 votes in 2004, while former Jacksonville resident John McCain squeaked past Obama in 2008 by less than 8,000 votes.
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.