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.
“Fiscal conservatism tends to be the common ingredient over the last number of cycles. That definitely trumps the social issues,” Florida Republican strategist Adam Goodman said. “I think Romney will play very well here. People are going to like his business experience.”
MORE SCIENCE THAN ART
In truth, Democrats who see Obama’s 2008 win here as the start of a trend and Republicans who see it as an aberration may both have it wrong. Obama’s 2008 campaign in Hillsborough mixed art and science like never before. The art—a resonant message promising better times delivered by a fresh-faced candidate who connected with wide swaths of voters—is something that can’t be replicated in 2012. An unemployment rate above 8 percent, a trillion-dollar budget deficit, and the slings and arrows of three-plus years of presidential fortunes trumps hope and change.
“This is a campaign that can’t find a campaign theme. That says something,” said Darryl Paulson, a retired University of South Florida political-science professor. “I think it will be very difficult for Obama to repeat his performance from 2008.”
Still, calling Obama’s victory in Hillsborough an anomaly ignores the science—the unprecedented amount of money and shoe leather and the know-how invested in the Tampa area, where his state campaign was headquartered. After years of Democrats playing to the party faithful in South Florida, Obama’s campaign charted a new course by targeting the middle-of-the-road voters in the middle of the state. He made more visits and aired more ads in the homestretch of the campaign in the Tampa Bay media market, which includes Hillsborough and surrounding counties, than any other part of the state.
“The demographics mean there are going to be more base supporters for Democrats to turn out, but you can’t forget that Florida is won in the middle by voters who are not offended by either political party,” said Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who masterminded Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida. “The recipe for winning Hillsborough is similar to the recipe for winning the state and winning the country: increase black and Hispanic turnout, increase youth turnout, and persuade independent voters. Pull the legs out of any one of those, and you’re toast.”
Obama could do it again. Schale crunched the numbers and found that Hispanic voters, who were 11 percent of the county’s electorate in 2008, now make up 13 percent. No wonder the Obama campaign is airing a new Spanish-language television ad featuring a Tampa Bay campaign volunteer. The headquarters has returned to Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, one of 26 offices—and counting—across the state. An office in Panama City slated to open on Saturday will be No. 27.
Romney has zero offices in the state; his three makeshift quarters from the January primary are long closed. The recently anointed presumptive nominee is only now turning his attention to Florida, although the state and national parties have started laying the groundwork for his campaign.
The president’s advantage looks even bigger when one considers that he did not start putting together his 2008 campaign in Florida until June. Obama had been boycotting the state because its early presidential primary flouted national-party rules.
This cycle, Obama essentially started building his reelection campaign under the auspices of the Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America project after he took office in 2009. Ever since he officially launched his reelection bid one year ago, volunteers have participated in thousands of phone banks, voter-registration drives, canvasses, and house parties. It all adds up to a sweeping grassroots network in which the campaign is constantly “building capacity” and recruiting new “neighborhood team leaders.”
“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 said. “By relentlessly organizing, they have built a firewall.”
But unlike in 2008, when Obama outspent McCain by more than 3-to-1 in Florida, Republican super PACs could outgun him in 2012. And this time, instead of running with the winds of the outgoing Bush administration at his back, Obama is facing the headwinds of a punishing economy. Unemployment in Hillsborough County in February, the most recent month for which data are available, was 9 percent. That’s higher than the national average of 8.3 percent, although lower than the 11.8 percent high in Hillsborough on Obama’s watch in July 2010. When the president took office, county unemployment was 8.9 percent.
While the jobs forecast is improving, the real-estate market is still in the tank. Core-Logic, a data-analysis firm, reported a 12.4 percent foreclosure rate in Hillsborough and three surrounding counties in January, compared with 12.1 percent in the state and 3.4 percent nationwide. The foreclosure inventory is bigger than when Obama took office because property values have yet to recover, leaving increasing numbers of homeowners under water, anchored to heavy mortgages.
“The state of Florida is ground zero for the failures of the Obama administration,” declared Albert Martinez, a spokesman for the Romney campaign in Florida. “How does he come down to a state that’s been hit so hard by his policies and convince Floridians that life is better since he’s become president?”
A Panera Bread franchise on the outskirts of Hyde Park, an upscale Tampa neighborhood, is as good a place as any to find voters disenchanted with Obama. However, many are still a long way from making up their minds, and there was little of the vitriol against the president common in more-partisan corners.
“I think he’s lost his way,” Jerry Bohannon, an insurance and investment planner, said. “I thought he had a lot of promise, but now he’s just a Washington insider trying to keep his position. I know he wants to be president for another four years but I don’t really know what he wants to do.”
Another customer that afternoon, Elissa Gross, who serves on the board of a local nonprofit, lamented the president’s health insurance overhaul. She called it a “socialized health care system.” But with one child at Columbia University and the other at the University of Florida’s medical school, she praised Obama for backing a cap on federal student-loan repayments.
“I like Obama,” she said, reflecting a common finding that voters think well of the president personally even if they question his performance. “I think he’s articulate, even-tempered, and energetic. The economy is on the uptick, so we’ll have to see.”
Popular and dynamic figures such as Sen. Marco Rubio, a contender for the vice presidential nomination, and former Gov. Jeb Bush will serve as important ambassadors for GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Janice Powell, a 58-year-old real-estate broker, sounded disgusted with politicians across the board, Democrat and Republican. Like one of every four voters in Hillsborough, she’s not registered with either party.
Powell was sitting at a small round table with her 25-year-old son, Cody Powell, and another real-estate agent, Ellen Zusman. The three have launched a website to rent private homes in the Tampa area to convention delegates. Bankruptcy filings by local home-builders have rattled a construction industry that long fueled Hillsborough’s economy.
“Middle-class people are really hurting, and all I see are a bunch of professional politicians,” Powell said. “I don’t see how we’re going to get back on track.”
More than half of the Florida voters in a recent Fox News poll said they don’t see signs that the economy is improving. Still, Obama posted an 8-point edge in the percentage of voters who view him favorably, compared with Romney. The survey and others have found an essentially tied race that will be decided by fence-sitters like Zusman. The mother of two is a Democrat who voted for Obama but hasn’t decided if she will support him again. She doesn’t think he made good on his promise to work with Republicans; she’s worried that Romney will pander to the GOP’s conservative wing. “The Republican Party loses me when it comes to social issues,” Zusman said. “It’s like they believe in small government until you get pregnant.”
Several polls have found a gender gap working in Obama’s favor, following a heated debate during the Republican primary over the administration’s efforts to require religious-affiliated institutions to cover birth control in their health insurance plans. Democrats are also plugging Obama’s advantage with Hispanic voters, pointing to Romney’s hard line against illegal immigration.
“The Republican primary made our job a lot easier,” said Buckhorn, the Tampa mayor, although the gaps with women and Hispanic voters are expected to shrink between now and November. “When they write the history of this election, it will be those two groups that will decide it.”
In an interview in his office at City Hall, the former Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter came across as an ideal surrogate for Obamain the region: an affable, centrist Democrat who projects competence and a pro-business mind-set. Buckhorn said that the secret to winning Hillsborough, a largely middle-class community that has been devastated by the real-estate bust, is responding to the concerns of working people.
“Obama is going to have to make the case that what he’s done has made a difference,” said Buckhorn, whose sleeves are rolled up in a picture on the city website. “Romney’s challenge is to come across as the average guy.”
Obama’s allies are already on the attack. A super PAC created on the president’s behalf, Priorities USA, recently aired a 30-second spot in Hillsborough and other counties that accuses Romney of making millions of dollars on the backs of middle-class workers.
That message has sunk in with Bernard Woodside, a 44-year-old African-American who was working on his laptop at Panera across the table from his two young sons doing their homework. “I think he’s geared more toward the upper class,” he said of Romney. “I don’t think he has a plan that speaks to lower incomes.”
In a county with higher unemployment and foreclosure rates than the national average, issues like gas prices, not gay marriage, are expected to motivate voters in 2012. Romney’s moderate record on social issues such as abortion—a liability in primaries dominated by Christian conservatives—could be an asset for him in the general election, along with his business experience. Most of the Hispanic voters here are Puerto Rican and Cuban-American, for whom immigration policy is of interest but not a priority. That means Romney has a better shot at drawing Spanish-speaking voters in Hillsborough County than he may have elsewhere.
Romney will also have the advantage of campaigning in a state where the political establishment is solidly Republican. Of the six statewide officeholders in Florida, only one, Sen. Bill Nelson, is a Democrat. While Gov. Scott’s ratings are even lower than Obama’s in Florida, more-popular and dynamic figures such as Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush will serve as important ambassadors for the GOP nominee. Rubio is considered a top contender for the vice presidential nomination, and he has already taken a star turn with Romney by campaigning recently in another battleground state, Pennsylvania. Bush released a statement criticizing Obama’s trade policy in advance of his recent speech at the Port of Tampa.
But Romney won’t need surrogates to show him the way around Florida. He has been campaigning in the state since February 2007, when Florida was poised to schedule its earliest primary in history and Romney was launching his first White House bid. He came in second in the 2008 primary with 31 percent of the vote, 5 percentage points behind McCain. Romney captured roughly the same share of the vote in Hillsborough County. But this year, he garnered 48 percent of the vote in Hillsborough in the Jan. 31 primary, surpassing his 46 percent average statewide.
“The voter in the I-4 corridor tends to be focused on issues of immediacy and what’s going on nationally with the economy,” said Republican consultant Brett Doster, who led Bush’s 2004 reelection bid and Romney’s 2012 primary campaign in Florida. “When you’ve got a guy like Romney who is a proven job creator juxtaposed against a guy who said he would get unemployment down to 8 percent and it’s hovering above that, those things matter.”
Doster partly attributed George W. Bush’s win in Hillsborough after the 2001 terrorist attacks to the substantial population of active and retired military. The headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base, is just south of Tampa. Via satellite from the base, Bush offered troops around the world an upbeat assessment of the war in Iraq in June 2004. The year before, he invited country-music star Toby Keith to perform there. “You’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.,” Keith belted out to a cheering crowd.
But national-security concerns were not running as high by November 2008, and McCain was forced to defend Bush’s stewardship of a flailing economy and increasingly unpopular war.
In the meantime, Hillsborough’s makeup had been changing. David Dent, an associate journalism professor at New York University, has launched a website dedicated to counties like Hillsborough that voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004 but went for Obama in 2008. Nationwide, 272 counties fit the BushObamaAmerica.com profile. Although some similarities with nationwide averages on race and income can be drawn when all of the counties’ populations are grouped together, the makeup of the individual counties varies widely. Some are home to growing minority populations; others are overwhelmingly white.
“Hillsborough is clearly one of the Bush-Obama counties where a tilt in diversity helped produce the win, and the question is whether those ingredients are still ripe enough, given the current economic climate,” Dent said.
How closely divided is Hillsborough? Of the 1.95 million votes cast in presidential elections since 1992, Republican nominees won only about 14,000 more than Democratic nominees. Another nugget dug up by Schale, the Democratic strategist: The outcome in the Tampa Bay market has run within 2 percentage points of the statewide result in every presidential election since 1992.
Florida’s critical importance to the Obama campaign was as clear as black and white, in a weekly schedule scrawled on a dry erasable board in mid-April at the campaign headquarters in Ybor City. Monday was a call with reporters to tout Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the rich. On Tuesday, the president outlined the aforementioned plan in Boca Raton. Michelle Obama spoke in Jacksonville on Thursday, and Obama stopped at the port on Friday. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, also made public appearances in Florida last month.
Romney has not yet made a trip to Florida since he emerged as the presumptive nominee, and he has only the bare bones of a campaign on the ground. He won the Florida primary in January mostly by turning in two strong debate performances and quashing Newt Gingrich’s momentum out of South Carolina by unleashing a torrent of attack ads, many of which were aired by the super PAC Restore Our Future—another weapon that the Romney campaign will have on its side. His fledgling Florida team also showed its potential with an impressive absentee-ballot program that banked tens of thousands of votes before the primary election.
Can Romney ultimately match Obama in organizational power here? There’s no reason to think he can’t. The race is a dead heat, and Obama was even less organized in Florida than Romney at this time four years ago.
“We’re not going to be outworked,” said Martinez, the Romney spokesman and a veteran of Rubio’s successful U.S. Senate campaign in 2010. “You’re going to see an aggressive effort in the state of Florida comparable to the successful Republican efforts you’ve seen in the state before.”
Few, however, are underestimating the difficulty of dislodging a president in a place so evenly divided. Over a mug of coffee in his cottage-like office, Republican strategist Goodman proudly pointed to framed signs from recent winning state campaigns: Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford. But this one is different.
“Anyone who thinks that Florida, which tends to be reliably Republican, will be anything less than a firefight in November is ignoring history,” Goodman said. “All hands will be on deck.”
Goodman called the GOP’s selection of Hillsborough to host the national convention “huge” and said that the publicity surrounding the four-day event could easily boost Romney’s popularity enough to make a difference in November. But there is little evidence that the location of a convention translates into a win; in fact, the last four Republican nominees all lost the states that hosted the national conventions: California in 1996, Pennsylvania in 2000, New York in 2004, and Minnesota in 2008. Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, noted on the school’s website that over the past half-century, there was only one instance in which a state hosting the Republican convention flipped after voting for the Democratic nominee four years earlier.
That was in 1968, when Richard Nixon won Florida.
This article appears in the May 5, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.