Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Politics

Registration, turnout shaped Hillsborough election

TAMPA — It wasn't an election to redraw the political map in Hillsborough County, but it did underscore emerging trends.

Look at the precincts President Barack Obama won in 2008 and those he won last week. They mostly overlap.

But that similarity belies differences, political observers say, of what happened in those intervening years. It's a tale of a combination of voter registration, who those new voters were and which party turned out its people — either by absentee ballot, early voting or on Election Day.

"The level of detail, the efficiency and the thoroughness of the Obama get-out-the-vote effort, particularly in the early and absentee votes … gave them a firewall," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who is a Democrat and a political consultant by trade.

It also helped run up the margins of victory in the races won by Democrats Bob Henriquez (property appraiser), Craig Latimer (supervisor of elections) and County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, he said, and likely carried Democratic underdog Mark Danish into office over Republican incumbent Shawn Harrison in state House District 63.

So a clear lesson of the past two presidential races is that early organizing not only pays off, but also is critically important.

"In essence, you now have to run two elections," Buckhorn said. "You've got to be just as aggressive and just as focused on the early and absentee votes as you are in the Election Day turnout."

Here are some snapshots from the returns:

• • •

When it came to early voting, Hillsborough bucked the statewide trend.

Across Florida, early voting dropped 9.4 percent from 2008 to 2012.

But in Hillsborough, with 15 early voting sites, it rose 13.9 percent. The busiest of those sites was the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library, with nearly 17,700 early voters, followed by the Jan K. Platt Regional Branch Library.

The least busy: the downtown County Center and the libraries in West Tampa and North Tampa, each with fewer than 8,000 early voters.

• • •

Overall, more people voted before Election Day than on it.

In the presidential race, Hillsborough voters cast 167,996 absentee ballots, 166,688 early votes and 204,761 votes on Election Day.

And increases in registration fueled a paradox.

For all races in Hillsborough, more people voted this year than four years ago: 541,077 this year versus 515,983 in 2008.

But turnout dropped slightly, from 73.6 percent in 2008 to 72.4 percent this year.

That reflects that the total number of registered voters grew 6.6 percent during those four years, from 701,464 in 2008 to 747,605 now.

• • •

A surge of registrations among black and Hispanic voters creates a problem for the GOP.

"The Republican Party has done an excellent job of ensuring their party is exclusive to a very specific demographic," said Democratic media consultant Kevin Cate. Trouble is, "the demographics of Florida are changing."

Hispanic residents now represent 25.1 percent of Hillsborough's population, according to the U.S. Census. Obama's campaign "spent four years registering people to vote under the radar, much more aggressively than the Republicans were doing," Buckhorn said, "and I think those numbers really came in for them."

Democratic consultant Ana Cruz and Republican consultant Chris Ingram agreed that the GOP needs to broaden its appeal to stay competitive.

"It's undeniable, looking at Hillsborough County as a microcosm of the state, which is a microcosm of the country, that the Republican Party doesn't resonate well with minorities," Cruz said.

"Particularly worrisome," Ingram said.

• • •

Others frame the differences in organizational terms.

"The Democrats did an excellent job of turning out their people," GOP political consultant Anthony Pedicini said.

In contrast, "we don't know how to get the vote out," said Sam Rashid, an east Hillsborough Republican activist and political fundraiser. "That's what it boiled down to."

Based on voter registration, Democrats start any given election in Hillsborough with a 6-point advantage, Rashid said.

"The idea is to fill that bucket first with independents and build from there," he said. "Other than that, it's going to come down to turnout. How much of your vote can you turn out? That's where your effort should be put. It really comes down to a precinct-by-precinct effort by the party. If that's not there, I don't think you win."

• • •

Turnout topped 80 percent in about a seventh of the county's 347 voting precincts and ran high in South Tampa, Keystone, Carrollwood, Lutz, Lithia, Valrico and Sun City Center.

One precinct in Sun City Center, No. 909, had turnout of nearly 89 percent and two more precincts, one in Palma Ceia and one in Kings Point in Sun City Center, had turnouts of more than 87 percent.

Five precincts failed to turn out even half their voters. The lowest turnout, 40.2 percent, was at Precinct 573, which covers an area north of Fletcher Avenue largely between Interstate 275 and Nebraska Avenue.

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