A pleasant day’s drive around Tampa offers a micro-level view of House Democrats’ dilemma.
Drive northeast from the security barricades downtown and you’ll pass near-universally African-American neighborhoods near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, eventually hitting student apartment complexes near the huge University of South Florida. Drive east, and you’ll quickly arrive at the old Latin quarter of Ybor City, now a progressive, gay-friendly enclave where old cigar shops and modern nightclubs are enjoying a healthy GOP clientele this week. Drive northwest, and there’s vibrant West Tampa, home to much of the city’s Latino population today.
Farther south, there’s fashionable Hyde Park and Tampa’s SoHo district (along the conveniently named South Howard Avenue), home to plenty of high-end boutiques, art galleries, and BMWs. While this section of town is more politically mixed and there are still a fair number of Romney bumper stickers on cars, the long-term prognosis for Democrats seems sunny: Just steps off South Howard, Publix Super Markets opened one of the chain’s GreenWise stores—“All-Natural. Organic. Earth-Friendly.”—just two days after Barack Obama carried these traditionally GOP precincts in 2008.
So what’s the catch for House Democrats? Virtually all of these neighborhoods are lumped into the 14th Congressional District, where Obama and Rep. Kathy Castor will win in a landslide. It’s everywhere else that’s a problem. And Tampa’s not a unique case; it’s a microcosm.
Both presidential candidates’ swing-state efforts—particularly Obama’s—are placing a premium on get-out-the-vote efforts geared toward their best demographics and putting less emphasis than usual on persuading undecideds. It’s not hard to see why the Obama campaign’s four Tampa-area field offices are located where they are (the nearest Republican National Committee Victory Field Office is in the suburb of Brandon), and why the I-4 corridor is so critical to the close contest for Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes.
But drive a little bit farther out from Tampa, and the wine sections at Publix start getting a little bit smaller, while the big-box stores, retirement villages, and country buffet restaurants start getting a little bit more plentiful. Here, voters’ affinity for Obama is much more uncertain, and they aren’t likely to split their tickets. If anything, they’re likely to use their congressional vote as a check on the White House in case Obama wins reelection. Take Pasco County, to the north: President Clinton won its vote by 14 percentage points in 1996, but Obama lost by 3 points in 2008. It’s looking like Romney country in 2012, and Democrats don’t even have a viable candidate running in the 9th District against the GOP’s Rep. Gus Bilirakis.
To the west of Tampa in Clearwater, there’s Rep. Bill Young, a 42-year GOP institution likely to win again in the 10th District. To the east in Brandon, there’s safe GOP freshman Rep. Dennis Ross in the 12th. And to the south in Sarasota, there’s GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan, a former car dealer and favorite punching bag for Democrats, who may well win reelection if only because Obama may well lose his 13th District by double digits.
Even in states like Florida where the presidential race is razor close, Republican voters are spread more efficiently across more districts. And it’s not just due to redistricting; it’s the nature of the Obama coalition. House Democrats have a “1 percent” problem that has little to do with the personal pedigrees of Obama or Romney. In 2008, Obama won his entire 9.4 million vote margin of victory from just 29 of America’s 3,141 counties—less than 1 percent—perhaps the narrowest geographical concentration of votes for any president in history.
If Obama wins reelection in 2012, he’ll have the same set of super-saturated Democratic vote hives to thank. But if Republicans hold onto a similar House majority next year by winning just about everywhere else, they’ll have these places to thank, too.
David Wasserman contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the August 29, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.