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  1. Florida Politics

Hillsborough County goes from bellwether to outlier

Hillsborough County voting precincts won by President-elect Donald Trump are green on this map from the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections. Precincts won by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are orange.
Hillsborough County voting precincts won by President-elect Donald Trump are green on this map from the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections. Precincts won by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are orange.
Published Nov. 10, 2016

TAMPA — Pity the national and foreign journalists who flocked to Hillsborough County this week to see the U.S. election writ small on the local level.

Unlike the nation, state and even the rest of the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough went for Clinton 51.5 percent, compared to 44.7 percent for President-elect Donald Trump — a slightly smaller margin than President Barack Obama won by in 2012 and 2008.

"We stuck out in a sea of red," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a political analyst and consultant by trade. And while Hillsborough has a reputation as a predictor of the national vote — USA Today profiled it as one of eight counties nationwide that could decide the election — this year could signal its move from bellwether to outlier.

"As we get more and more millennials moving down here, as the urban areas start to be increasingly repopulated by young professionals, then I think it's going to lean more Democratic," Buckhorn said.

"You look at south Hillsborough County — it's not the farms and pastures it used to be," Tampa GOP consultant April Schiff said. "It's housing developments beyond housing developments, and it's changing the face of the county."

• • •

Generally, Clinton won in the cities of Tampa and Temple Terrace, and parts of Plant City. Trump won in much of the unincorporated county. As in the past couple of elections, you can find exceptions to this trend in Tampa's posh waterfront neighborhoods along Bayshore and West Shore boulevards, as well as on Davis Islands, all of which went for Trump.

Still, the undervote in the presidential election — the number of voters who left their ballot blank rather than make a choice between Clinton and Trump — was at least five times as large this year as it was either time Obama was on the ballot, suggesting an unprecedented level of dissatisfaction with both candidates.

Overall in Hillsborough, the sheer number of people voting went up more than 17 percent compared to 2008. And the number of registered voters casting ballots by mail or voting early rose from 62 percent four years ago to nearly 70 percent of the total this year.

Yet turnout dipped slightly from the previous two presidential elections — 71.25 percent this year versus nearly 73 percent four years ago and 73.5 percent eight years ago.

• • •

At a glance, Hillsborough's election results offer few obvious patterns.

"I've been looking at the results all morning and thinking, 'What is going on here?' " Schiff said.

Even inside the Tampa city limits, Republicans did well in legislative races at the same time Clinton was winning in those same areas.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio edged challenger Patrick Murphy in Hillsborough. Sandra Murman easily won re-election to the County Commission. Dana Young and Jackie Toledo won their respective state Senate and House races comfortably. Both Young and Toledo, Buckhorn noted, had good name recognition and, in Young's case in particular, "a boatload of money."

But Democrat Andrew Warren pulled off the upset of the night in the Hillsborough state attorney's race, and liberal Pat Kemp won a countywide County Commission race by a larger margin than either Clinton or Democratic luminary Pat Frank.

Going into the election, Frank, the court clerk who has led campaigns in Hillsborough since 1972, had a sense that something was awry.

"It was just a mixture of the discontent of people and desire of something new, and I don't think it's something we had any control over," she said. "I felt, in a sense, powerless."

Meanwhile, Schiff said she just didn't see much of a Republican ground game in Hillsborough.

"I'm a firm believer in grass roots campaigning, and that knocking on doors wins elections," she said. (On Tuesday night, Young said walking neighborhoods to talk to 85,000 households made a big difference, though spending $2.1 million probably didn't hurt, either.)

Hillsborough Republicans appeared to opt for putting door knockers on houses instead of actually knocking on the doors, Schiff said. She also didn't see any campaigning or organization from the local GOP until after Trump was named the nominee.

"I don't think the Republican Party in Hillsborough did a very good job of that this year," she said. "It has to be a wakeup call. It has to be a learning experience for the Republican Party in particular that they have to change their tactics."

Hillsborough Republican Party chairwoman Deborah Tamargo said she believes millennials are going to be open to Republican ideas, but the party needs to work hard to reach out to them specifically as they move here.

That kind of cultivation, she said, hasn't taken place "for a long time."

"The demographics got away from them," she said. "It's about recruiting. You can't just expect people to show up at the polls and vote for a party they know nothing about."