TAMPA — The conventional wisdom used to be that a candidate needed a three-legged stool to win a citywide race in Tampa.
The three legs: the affluent neighborhoods of South Tampa, the Latin vote in West Tampa and the black vote of East Tampa.
Now that calculus is changing, say candidates, neighborhood activists and members of Tampa's political class.
Over the past two city elections, voter turnout in West Tampa has mirrored the citywide average. But compared to the northern and eastern quadrants of the city, voter turnout in South Tampa is so much higher that it increasingly makes political sense for candidates to focus more time and effort there.
Consider this: Tampa had 112 voting precincts in 2007, but in that year's city elections, more than half the vote came from just 30 of them, with about two-thirds of those lying south of Kennedy Boulevard.
Davis Islands, Bayshore Boulevard, Palma Ceia, Hyde Park and the Fair Oaks area each were home to a precinct with voter turnout that was more than double the citywide average of 15.6 percent. Only one other precinct in the city had a similar level of turnout, and it started with an abnormally small number of registered voters.
"Back in 2007, they really spent a lot of time in South Tampa," says Marlin Anderson, president of the Sunset Park Area Homeowners Association. "I think the ones who recognized that were the ones who ended up prevailing in the election. I think it's going to be even more so now. We have a lot of people who are very, very interested in politics."
In 2003, half the vote came from 43 of 107 precincts. South Tampa accounted for more than half of those precincts, including nine of the 10 with the highest turnout in the city. In the runoff election that elected current Mayor Pam Iorio, one in three voters was from South Tampa. Iorio's opponent, Frank Sanchez, could have received every single vote cast in the historically black precincts of East Tampa without overcoming Iorio, who swept the South Tampa precincts.
Those trends don't mean candidates this year won't campaign throughout Tampa — they say they will — but they do pay close attention to where the most consistent voters live.
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Former Tampa City Council member and mayoral candidate Bob Buckhorn spends mornings in West Tampa coffee shops and Sundays in the black churches of East Tampa, and he plans events to promote voter participation in both areas. But he is candid about the importance of having a good campaign strategy for South Tampa.
"It's purely a mathematical equation," Buckhorn says. "You go where the voters are, and the voters tend to be in larger numbers in South Tampa, which means you can cover a lot more ground and hit a lot more voters in South Tampa. … That's particularly true if you're walking (neighborhoods). It becomes an allocation of resources and an allocation of manpower, both of which are in very limited supply."
For former Mayor Dick Greco, voter participation citywide has been a consistent theme in his campaign. In virtually every speech, he says 60,000 people voted the first time he ran for mayor in 1967. But 40 years later in a more populous city, only 27,000 people voted.
Though Greco got a late start in the race, he is raising funds strongly and draws on a large and enthusiastic volunteer base that has worked for him for decades. He acknowledges that some parts of the city seem more active than others — you don't see many campaign signs in New Tampa, he says — but he plans "to work every single part of town."
"People don't realize that you can't sustain anything or any values we have if you don't participate," Greco says.
Theories about the reason for South Tampa's political dominance are varied. For one thing, South Tampa is the least transient part of the city, former Mayor Sandy Freedman says.
"People have deeper roots (going back) generations and generations, so there's more involvement and consequently voter turnout is higher," she says.
By comparison, having the lowest voter turnout in the city means New Tampa lacks ballot-box clout in city elections. Its affluence is comparable to South Tampa's, but because it was developed more recently, people haven't lived there as long. And some of its new, gated communities discourage two staples of local electioneering: political yard signs and door-to-door campaigning.
Local newspapers also share the blame, says Scott Paine, a former City Council member and University of Tampa government professor who lives in New Tampa. They cover South Tampa news more often and more closely, he says, which sends the message to New Tampa residents that they are not as much a part of the city.
But Paine says New Tampa voters have the numbers to wield meaningful influence in local elections.
"If north Tampa decided that its fate depended greatly on what happened in city politics, it could turn the tide," he says.
That could happen, even this year, suggests University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus. In an area like New Tampa, an increase in the numbers of foreclosures and homeowners who are under water on their mortgages could spur voters toward greater participation, she says.
"That would be parallel to what we just saw in the state elections, where economic issues pushed people to activism," she says.
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Also uncertain is what role having a close-fought mayor's race will play.
The race features five well-known candidates — Buckhorn, Greco, Rose Ferlita, Thomas Scott and Ed Turanchik — all current or former elected officials, all well known and all, to some degree, with overlapping constituencies, both in terms of policy and geography.
If no one wins an outright majority on March 1, the top two candidates would head toward a March 22 runoff. And a small number of votes could decide who makes the runoff and who stays home.
"It's not clear how this is going to go," Turanchik says. "We've never had such a competitive mayor's race in such tumultuous times."
The question of how much to focus on any one part of the city "rises to the level of a trade secret," Turanchik says. President Barack Obama's campaign in 2008 managed to register many new voters, but a lot of them didn't turn out in 2010, he says. So in this and future elections, candidates must try to figure out, "where will the voters be coming from?" he says.
Over the long run, a parallel question could be whether candidates who feel compelled to run especially hard in one area of town will feel the same sense of responsibility to every part of the city.
"It's kind of unfortunate in terms of getting overall representation," says former longtime City Council member Linda Saul-Sena. "A person could theoretically ignore the rest of the community."
That would be "a huge mistake," says Spencer Kass, a South Tampa neighborhood association president who works in West Tampa, follows real estate trends in East Tampa and recently organized a citywide petition drive calling for a ban on panhandling.
"If you get elected," he says, "you better know what's going on."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.