Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Politics

Romano: The odd quality that separates Tampa Bay from most of America

We are divided, you and me.

For that matter, so are you and a neighbor. You and a co-worker. Maybe even you and a family member.

We, as a community in Tampa Bay, are about as divided as it gets in America.

And that's not a bad thing. You might even say it's worth celebrating.

I started thinking about this when I saw a headline on analyst Nate Silver's website fivethirtyeight.com the other day. It declared, "Purple America Has All But Disappeared.''

The point was that, more and more, Americans are migrating to communities with like-minded people. Democrats move to blue communities, and Republicans look for red communities. Apparently, purple is passé.

The 2016 presidential election may have been close on a national scale, but it was a runaway in more than 90 percent of the nation's counties. Individual communities either went large for Donald Trump, or they went large for Hillary Clinton. There was very little in between.

Except here.

Of the 50 counties that had the most voters at the polls in November, Pinellas had the closest election results in America. It was 48.6 percent for Trump and 47.5 for Clinton. That's a 1.1 percent swing. Hillsborough County was 51.5 for Clinton and 44.7 for Trump, a 6.8 percent swing.

That means the Tampa Bay area had two of the six closest results among the nation's larger counties.

While residents in Chicago's Cook County (swing of 53 points), New York County (77.2 points), Philadelphia County (66.9 points) and Seattle's King County (50.4 points) are apparently on the same page politically, folks around here don't mind living next door to a commie. Or a fascist.

Clearly, I'm kidding. But only just a little.

Tampa Bay is an outlier in an increasingly polarized nation. It's apparent even in nearby communities. The Villages in Sumter County has become a haven for conservative retirees, and South Florida is like liberal catnip. So what makes Tampa Bay so different?

University of South Florida political scientist Dr. Susan MacManus, who has been working on a book examining voting habits along the Interstate 4 corridor, says Hills- borough is a perfect microcosm of America because it includes all three popular voting groups. Not Republican, Democrat and independent, but rural, suburban and urban.

And while voter registration statistics in Pinellas and Hillsborough show mostly similar trends for Republicans and Democrats during the past 20 years, independent and minor-party voters have exploded in both counties. They've nearly doubled in Pinellas and have more than tripled in Hillsborough.

"Is this a good thing for the community? I guess that's in the eye of the beholder,'' MacManus said. "It makes it easier to draw different businesses and economic opportunity because businesses like the idea of diversity. But it makes it more difficult to govern because it's harder to come to a consensus.''

The fivethirtyeight.com story pointed out that this extreme separation of blue and red voters is a fairly recent phenomenon. In 1992, the number of U.S. counties that had a separation of 50 points or more in the presidential election was 93. In the November election, that number was up to 1,196 counties.

Apparently, that makes us an outlier. An oddity. A rare oasis where Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, soccer moms and urban hipsters choose to coexist.

I suppose that leaves just one thing to say:

Howdy neighbor!

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