Campaign Crawlers

Heavenly Hillsborough

From the center of the political universe.

By 7.11.12

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TAMPA -- Greetings from the center of the political universe. At least the center according to an increasing number of political consultants and writers. Not to mention to the folks who buy political ads.

So far, residents of the Tampa Bay media market have been subjected to more than $13 million worth of broadcast political ads in the presidential race alone, as much as any place in the country has endured to this point. This level of attention comes from the importance of Florida, Hillsborough County, and Tampa in determining who wins the November matchup between our rookie president and Mitt Romney.

Not even PhDs in arithmetic can figure a way for Romney to gather the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the presidency without Florida's 29. Obama -- starting with California, New York, and other blue faithfuls in the bank -- could reach 270 without Florida. Romney almost certainly can't.

Florida, the biggest of the swing states, is not only critical but representative of the nation. Our demographics and our philosophical spread -- a bit center-right, taken all around -- is a lot like the nation. And Hillsborough County is much like Florida. Hillsborough has urban, suburban, and even rural stretches in this geographically big county which is home to 1.2 million souls (but no hills -- the county was named in the 19th century after an 18th century British bureaucrat). Hillsborough housing stock ranges from shacks to multi-million dollar homes. We've got blue-collar, white collar, and no-collar. 

The racial and ethnic makeup of the county is similar to the state and the nation. Contrary to the image many have of Florida, the biggest age demographic in Hillsborough is not 65 and over, but 30 to 49. 

Hillsborough, and the entire I-4 corridor, which bisects the peninsula and includes both the Tampa Bay and Orlando media markets -- is just slightly younger and slightly whiter than the state. The area is probably where the Florida race will be decided. Romney is strong in north Florida, which is, ironically, much more Southern than the rest of the state. And South East Florida, home of so many transplanted Northeasterners it's often called Baja New Jersey, is an Obama stronghold. But the I-4 corridor is in play.

Party registration in Hillsborough as of Monday was 286K Democrats, 235K Republicans, and 176K no party or minor party affiliations. This is more competitive than it appears, because Florida, trending Republican since the seventies, has lots of folks who have been registered Democrat forever but haven't voted for a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter. And they only did that once. Some haven't gone D at the top since LBJ.

As proof of what a presidential bellwether Hillsborough is, the county has voted for the winner in every presidential race save one since 1960. In 1992 Hillsborough voters gave more of their votes to George Herbert Walker Bush, while the rest of the nation embraced (so to speak) a bright but callow serial groper who had risen to the top in a small Southern state. (And how did that work out?) This didn't diminish my affection for small Southern states. But it was dispiriting.

"If you can craft a message that resonates in Hillsborough, it will resonate in the nation," Hillsborough Republican County Chairman Art Wood told me.

If it's Wood, Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry, or Romney's Florida communications director, Jeff Bechdel, there's both a recognition that Florida is do or die this cycle, and a willingness to do what needs to be done to carry the day on November 6. In my conversations with these guys, the word "energy" kept coming up. They say Republicans have it this year. They'll need it.

"This is not 2008," Bechdel said. "Obama has a record now. The guy Romney is running against has been a failure." Bechdel promises Floridians will be seeing a lot of Romney, and hearing a lot from him about the "litany of broken [Obama] promises" that the mainstream media has not followed up on.

Wood said his county Republican executive committee has expanded past 350 members and will likely reach 400 before Election Day. These folks, he said, are ready to block and tackle.

"We'll be relying on these people to turn out the vote in a way we've never done before," Wood said. "We realize what Obama might do if he has another four years. People are really getting behind Romney, including many of the Ron Paul people. We know the bottom line is we have to get out the vote in Hillsborough. We know we've got to deliver. It's time to cut out the petty stuff and go to work."

For the five decades that I've followed presidential politics, partisans of one candidate or another each cycle have said, "This is the most important presidential race in the nation's history." Political hyperbole, until now. The stakes in this one far outstrip what we've seen, at least since WWII. Republican officials say they understand this, as do regular walking-around Republicans. "We get it; we know we're at a tipping point," Curry said.

"We know Obama is going to try to divide by groups, to target by groups and pit them against other groups," Curry said. "We'll have a compelling message based on the underlying philosophy of an opportunity society. We need to make that case. We need to preach it, to sell it, and then to govern that way when we win."

Of course the Republican National Convention will be in Tampa in late August, and whether or not the demonstrators tear up the place, Curry says he expect Romney, and whoever his running mate turns out to be, will get a big bump going into the final two months and change.

Curry says he's convinced Obama will do less well with certain demographics -- young people, minorities, Jews, environmentalists, et al. -- than he did in 2008. This and success in registering more Republicans to vote -- from the end of '08 to June of this year, the Democrat registration advantage in the state has dropped from more than 650K to fewer than 450K -- gives him confidence Florida will be red again at the top of the ticket Nov. 6.

So there it is, Hillsborough County. And all those I-4 corridor folks from St. Petersburg Beach to Daytona Beach. Very big medicine here this year. There will be an almost uncountable number of political commercials between now and Nov. 6 (not to mention those really irritating robo-calls at dinner time). And thanks to our importance to the race, we'll probably reach a point where it will be difficult to make it from our front doors to our cars in the morning without tripping over either Romney or Obama. But I guess that's just the way it is in the center of the political universe.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.