TAMPA, Fla.—Welcome to the molten core of the political universe, the hottest battleground in the biggest battleground state. Since 1960, Hillsborough County has called every single presidential election except for one—and there’s no reason to think that voters here won’t do it again.
Look around this county of 1.2 million and you’ll find a mash-up of past and future: a solidly Democratic city bracketed by Republican-leaning suburbs; strawberry fields, ranch-style homes, and gentrified urban neighborhoods; Puerto Ricans, Cuban-Americans, African-Americans, Midwestern retirees, college kids, active military, and young families; the brick and wrought iron of historic Ybor City, and the stucco and terra-cotta of the Sun City Center senior community.
The county boasts the nation’s seventh-largest seaport, the fourth-largest zoo, three major-league sports teams, and an annual festival honoring pirate invasions of the 18th and 19th centuries. It sits at the intersection of Interstate 75, which traverses the United States from north to south, and I-4, which bisects Florida from east to west. This is holy ground for pollsters and advertisers scouting a cross section of America.
“To me, it’s the linchpin,” said Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster who has overseen dozens of focus groups in the county, including one last month that analyzed Republicans’ views of presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “If you want to understand the swings in the electorate, you are likely to find them in Hillsborough County. It tends to be a good mirror.”
Hillsborough was a Democratic bastion back in the 1970s, but, like other parts of Florida and the South, it has been trending Republican for years—even though the Democratic Party has a 50,000-vote edge in the county. The last time Hillsborough voted for a Democratic presidential nominee was for Bill Clinton in 1996. Before that it was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Five out of the seven county commissioners are Republicans; so are the property appraiser, the tax collector, the state attorney, the elections supervisor, and the sheriff.
In 2008, Hillsborough became the only Florida county that had backed Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 to flip to Barack Obama. A surge of minority voters, young people, and independents helped Obama wring 68,000 more votes out of Hillsborough than John Kerry had, propelling him to a 7-point victory over Republican nominee John McCain in the county.
Was it a fluke? Or was it the start of something big?
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Democrats are banking on the latter, pointing to demographic trends here and throughout the country that are pumping up the share of the electorate that isn’t white and that leans their way. Republicans prefer to think of 2008 as an anomaly and Obama as a one-hit wonder, a history-making candidate at a time when the stars and planets over Hillsborough were aligned just right.
“I have never seen a ground game like the one Obama put up in Florida. It was masterful—and they never left.” —Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn
County Republican Chairman Art Wood goes so far as to call Hillsborough’s improbable support for Obama in 2008 his “personal Masada,” referring to the Roman siege on an Israeli mountaintop that led the Jewish rebels to commit mass suicide. “I was deeply depressed by the outcome in 2008, and I will use it as a rallying point in 2012,” he said. “That’s not going to happen again.”
To ensure that it doesn’t, the GOP picked Tampa to host its 2012 nominating convention. Pumping millions of dollars into the local economy isn’t a bad way to remind voters that you’re on their side. In a close election, a postconvention boost in central Florida may help put Romney over the top. And it could be that tight. The campaign here will pit Obama’s organizational power and his capacity to take advantage of the region’s shifting demographics against Romney’s message of fiscal prudence, backed by the state’s all-powerful GOP establishment, and played against the backdrop of a still-sputtering local economy.
To understand the politics of Hillsborough County is to understand migration patterns in Florida, which unfolded along the state’s major highways. Liberal Northeasterners headed south on I-95 to Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, turning South Florida into a Democratic stronghold, while folks from Michigan and Ohio took I-75 to Florida’s west coast. The influx bestowed on Hillsborough County a Midwestern sensibility that’s more practical than ideological.
Obama campaigned heavily in Hillsborough in 2008 on a simple promise with broad appeal: to cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. His most recent trip to Florida—the 16th since taking office—was to the Port of Tampa last month, where he touted his trade policy. “I want us selling stuff, and I want us putting more Americans back to work,” he said, knowing his economy-focused audience.
Republicans have been trying to seize that ground. In one obvious sign of the county’s penny-pinching mind-set, tea party activists help lead a successful battle in 2010 against a 1-cent increase in the sales tax to pay for light rail and other transportation projects in the county. The Democratic nominee for governor that year, Alex Sink, hailed from Hillsborough County but won here by only 10,000 votes. That slim margin of victory helped Republican Rick Scott, a former corporate executive who promised to create 700,000 jobs in seven years, narrowly win statewide.