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Obama has no coattails in Pinellas County

A surge of African-American voters and a lower turnout among Republicans propelled Barack Obama to victory in Pinellas County Tuesday.

But it did little to upset the GOP dominance in county politics.

According to an analysis of precinct-by-precinct data released Wednesday:

• Turnout in the county as a whole declined more than 5.5 percent compared to 2004, but turnout in 10 predominantly African-American precincts jumped an average of 5.6 percent.

• African-American precincts delivered gigantic victories for Obama. In precincts where more than three-quarters of registered voters are black, Obama beat John McCain 9,173-199.

• Republican voters, meanwhile, appeared to stay away from the polls in higher numbers. In Belleair — the home of the two most Republican precincts in Pinellas — turnout dropped 8 percent compared to 2004. Turnout also fell 8 percent in Island Estates in Clearwater, where Republicans hold a more than 2-to-1 advantage over Democrats.

The combination of energized Obama supporters and apathetic Republicans turned a county that in 2004 had been effectively split between President Bush and John Kerry.

Obama defeated McCain by more than 38,000 votes out of 464,000 cast.

"I think the Obama people did a heck of a job generating a pool of voters that usually doesn't come out," admitted Tony DiMatteo, chairman of the GOP in Pinellas.

Ken Welch, a Democrat on the County Commission who is black, said the organization and precision of the Obama campaign's get-out-the-vote effort was unprecedented.

Local Democrats were given specific assignments, he said, and on Sunday Welch found himself urging congregates at two black churches to vote. A noted gospel singer came to the area, he said, to deliver the message.

Of course, there was a lot of zeal for the campaign to seize upon. Welch said that as he went around the county putting up yard signs for local Democrats, African-Americans would ask whether he had any Obama signs.

"I've never seen anything like it," he said. "The enthusiasm was off the charts."

As impressive as it was, however, Obama's victory failed to translate into success for Democrats running in local elections.

The GOP swept all three County Commission races and the races for property appraiser, sheriff and elections supervisor. The victories came despite efforts by an invigorated county Democratic Party to get Obama backers to fill out straight Democratic tickets.

Obama received 247,728 votes, according to preliminary figures available Wednesday. No other Democrat in a countywide race came close to that figure. The nearest, County Commission candidate Paul Matton, received 197,676 votes in a losing effort.

The reverse was true in the GOP field. McCain received 209,682 votes, less than all other Republicans running countywide. Incumbent Sheriff Jim Coats, for instance, received 270,449 votes.

DiMatteo said GOP poll watchers measured how long African-American voters spent casting ballots during early voting.

What they found, DiMatteo said, was that many were so quick they couldn't have cast votes in state and local races.

While 464,183 people voted for president, only 440,774 voted for sheriff. Only about 365,000 voted for the School Board.

"There's never been a coattail effect in Pinellas," DiMatteo said. "Never."

Toni Molinaro, head of the county Democratic Party, admitted the problem.

"Republicans don't leave blank ballots," she said. "We have an education issue with our Democrats. We need to get them to vote local."

But it wasn't just the party discipline of GOP voters that gave Republicans an edge in local races. The local GOP has a healthier farm team of candidates and more local money to support them.

New Commissioner Nancy Bostock, for instance, has served on the School Board for a decade. And Neil Brickfield, also elected to the commission Tuesday, is a former Safety Harbor city commissioner and vice chairman of the county Republican Party.

Being on top, the GOP also enjoys the political advantage of incumbency in many races and a decided edge in cash thanks to an established donor network.

The six GOP candidates for countywide office outspent their Democratic opponents four to one.

But the election was not without its successes, Molinaro said. On the School Board, Democrats Nina Hayden and Janet Clark were elected to the nonpartisan seats.

And there was Obama's triumph – an accomplishment for a local party renowned for being fractious.

"We've repaired ourselves," Molinaro said. "We've got our reputation back. We're moving forward."

Getting out the vote, staying home

Voters in predominately African-American precincts came out to vote in higher numbers than in 2004 and voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, while voters in predominately Republican precincts voted less than four years ago. Some examples:

Precinct 114

New Hope Baptist Church, 2120 19th St. S, St. Petersburg

Pct. African-American: 89.8%

2004 turnout: 64.7%

2008 turnout: 70.83%

Results: Obama 1,032,

McCain 19

Precinct 205

Prayer Tower Church of God, 1137 37th St. S, St Petersburg

Pct. African-American: 77.8%

2004 turnout: 59.6%

2008 turnout: 64.64%

Results: Obama 1,190,

McCain 47

Precinct 129

Wildwood Recreation Center, 1000 28th St. S, St Petersburg

Pct. African-American: 90.4%

2004 turnout: 65.6%

2008 turnout: 70.21%

Results: Obama 1,320,

McCain 10

Precinct 372

Belleair Town Hall, 901 Ponce De Leon Blvd., Belleair

Pct. Republicans: 60.8%

2004 turnout: 88%

2008 turnout: 81.15%

Results: McCain 689,

Obama 381

Precinct 371

Belleair Town Hall, 901 Ponce De Leon Blvd., Belleair

Pct. Republicans: 60.7%

2004 turnout: 87.8%

2008 turnout: 81%

Results: McCain 1,103,

Obama 551

Precinct 711

Lakeside Community Church, 475 East Lake Road, Tarpon Springs

Pct. Republicans: 58.2%

2004 turnout: 85%

2008 turnout: 82.66%

Results: McCain 1,243,

Obama 609

Obama has no coattails in Pinellas County 11/05/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 7, 2008 10:15pm]
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