Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

Romano: Hillsborough County is the nation's no-partisan zone

Turns out, Main Street USA is not just a marketing ploy at Disney parks.

It exists a few blocks from the neighborhood where they've rolled Cuban cigars for more than a century. It's near a bay, close to strawberry fields and down the road from a collection of strip clubs.

It looks diverse, it sounds moderate and it feels increasingly relevant.

So where is Main Street USA?

Apparently, somewhere in Tampa.

How else would you explain Hillsborough County's uncanny ability to reflect the mood of America when it comes to presidential elections? Hillsborough is not reliably Republican, nor reliably Democratic.

It is reliably accurate.

In 21 of the last 22 presidential elections, Hillsborough has supported the candidate who has gone on to win.

That means Hillsborough went for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson before pivoting to two terms of Richard Nixon. It means Hillsborough believed in George W. Bush's conservative views for eight years before turning its fortunes over to Barack Obama's progressive vision for the next eight years.

Of the 40 most populous counties in the nation, none can match Hillsborough's knack of discerning which candidate, and which party, has tapped into the nation's consciousness since 1928.

Question: Which election did Hillsborough misfire on?

(We'll get to that later.)

Better question: What makes Hillsborough unique?

The simple, and accurate, answer is the county's diverse demographics. Nearly 16 percent of the county's voters are African-American, and nearly 17 percent are Hispanic. Non-whites, overall, make up more than 40 percent of the electorate in Hillsborough.

But that doesn't explain everything. Other markets have a similar mix of Democrats in the urban core, and Republicans in the suburbs.

What makes Hillsborough different is a lack of roots. There is no generational stronghold because the county continues to grow and change every year. The number of votes in Hillsborough increased nearly 500 percent from 1960 to 2012. And a diverse influx contributes to a diversity of views.

In this case, the lack of an identity actually is an identity.

"I don't know if it's still accurate, but it certainly was for a lot of years, other than tropical fish, the second-highest volume of cargo going out of (Tampa International Airport) is bodies,'' said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "That tells you if someone is going home to be buried, this is not their original home.''

That transient nature translates to unpredictability. Residents are less ideological and more pragmatic when it comes to elections, Buckhorn said. Voters are more willing to listen to candidates than follow party policies.

"Literally, the road to the White House runs through Tampa,'' Buckhorn said. "If you can win here, you can win anywhere in the country.''

(And, in case you're still wondering, Hillsborough's only miss was voting for George H.W. Bush instead of Bill Clinton in 1992. Ross Perot getting 20 percent of the vote might have had something to do with that.)

Voter registration numbers say Hillsborough leans left, but the majority of county commissioners veer right. So what is the county's true nature? Apparently, on either side of Main Street.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this column.

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