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 counterintuitive 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?
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Drive around the 1,000 square miles of rural, urban and suburban Hillsborough, and it's hard to miss the Romney-Ryan yard sign advantage.
"It's off the charts, the energy level. People are coming in all the time wanting a sign or a sticker," said Claudia LeFevre-Lowry, volunteering at the county GOP's satellite office in Carrollwood.
Activists say the enthusiasm to defeat Obama has been strong throughout the year, but the energy level exploded after the first debate when Mitt Romney outperformed the president.
"The week of that debate the phones didn't stop ringing," said Christopher Martin. "We probably grew (in volunteers) by 30 to 40 percent that week alone."
It's a far cry from 2008, when even the most ardent Hillsborough GOP activists at this point in the race were bracing for a loss.
"I wasn't surprised it happened, but I was really depressed. It became for me a personal mission — I'm not going to let that happen again," said Art Wood, the county GOP chairman, who has three campaign offices to supplement three Hillsborough offices run by the Romney campaign. "We're getting a tremendous amount of cooperation from the Romney campaign that we didn't have with the (John) McCain campaign."
The Obama campaign has eight offices across the county. Both campaigns placed their state headquarters in Tampa.
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The partisan landscape for Hillsborough boils down to Tampa being Democratic blue and the rest of the county Republican red. But the county is really made up of multiple and often unpredictable political communities: staunchly conservative FishHawk Ranch in southeast Hillsborough, loaded with active and retired military families and tea party allies; Sun City Center, home of heartland conservative retirees but no longer quite the GOP stronghold it used to be; heavily Hispanic Town 'N Country and West Tampa, where a restaurant hawking Cuban sandwiches is likely to be owned by someone from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic; South Tampa, where Republicans tend to dominate but Democrats can perform well in Hyde Park or Davis Islands; and New Tampa, where voters lean Republican but rarely turn out in big numbers in local races.
Almost everywhere are residents who vote for the candidate, not the party, and voters who defy partisan pigeonholing.
Digging into hamburger steak at Snellgrove's restaurant in Plant City last week, Wesley Swafford didn't exactly sound like a swing voter. The registered independent talked about Jeremiah Wright, about how Obama should release his college transcripts, about a culture of corruption among Chicago politicians.
"I'm a former Marine and retired police officer. Obama hates everything I'm about,'' said Swafford, who had voted earlier that day, for Romney.
A few tables away, Republican Dawna Auerbach also sported an "I Voted" sticker. Four years ago, she voted for McCain, but this time Obama got her vote.
"I just don't trust Mitt Romney. I just don't like him personally," she said, suggesting Romney seems mainly to care about wealthy Americans. "I think he just tells people whatever they want to hear."
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Republican County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said Hillsborough often votes based on leadership, more than ideology.
"This is a county that will vote for Ronald Reagan and Jan Platt,'' said Sharpe, referring to the progressive, reform-minded Democratic former county commissioner.
Nobody sees Obama with any chance of winning Hillsborough as handily as he did four years ago.
"The Obama campaign and field operation is as good as any that ever entered the arena. They were masterful at identifying those infrequent voters, energizing them and getting them to vote. They're going to need that even more than they did in 2008,'' said Mayor Buckhorn.
"I think it it's a coin toss and will be determined by how well the Obama campaign drives the early vote," he said. "If they build a big-enough fire wall to withstand what I think will be a stronger Romney vote on Election Day, they can pull it off."
As of Thursday, Hillsborough Democrats had cast nearly 20,000 more early and absentee ballots than Republicans. Nobody knows if that's enough for Obama to feel comfortable about Florida's ultimate bellwether county.
"I can tell you one thing," said Josh Burgin, a Republican activist. "Hillsborough County will vote for whoever becomes the president of the United States. You can bet your bottom dollar."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected]