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?
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.
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.
(...) 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.
(...) [Republican Strategist Adam] 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.