On election night, veteran political observers will pay special attention to the results coming out of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties — the epicenter of the swing vote in a perpetually swing state.
“This is an area that will vote Democratic and Republican in the same election. They’re classic ticket-splitters,” says Tom Eldon, a Democratic political consultant and pollster who is based in Sarasota. “And you can’t take their votes for granted.”
Conventional wisdom carves Florida up this way: The northern part of the state, more culturally in tune with the U.S. South, votes Republican; South Florida, with its cosmopolitan centers and influx of northeastern liberals, votes Democratic. The middle of the state — from Tampa to the Space Coast, along the much-vaunted I-4 corridor — can go either way, and whoever wins it wins the state.
But within that calculation, the Tampa Bay Area, the region anchored by Tampa and St. Petersburg, is notably independent.
While the more left-leaning retirees from New England, New York and the Mid-Atlantic have traditionally followed I-95 south and settled in Southeast Florida, from West Palm Beach to Miami, the fiscally conservative but social moderates from the Midwest drove down 75 and settled primarily along the Gulf Coast. “This is Big 10 country — people from places like Iowa, Illinois, Michigan,” Eldon says. “The people here retired to places where they went on vacation and liked.”
And that migration has influenced the region.
“As a whole the Midwestern values that permeate the area tends to drive a more practical pragmatic conservatism than the more inflammatory social issues you find in more rural, less educated areas,” says Chris Ingram, a Republican political consultant and analyst for the 24 hours news station Bay News 9, in Tampa.
It is also, as a whole, a pretty fair representation of the state, Ingram says, from its ethnic makeup to its voter registration. For instance, Hillsborough County has 228,000 registered Republicans and 287,000 registered Democrats, which roughly mirrors the state’s split — about 4 million registered Republicans, and 4.6 million registered Democrats. Hillsborough also has an outsized number of independents (165,000), also proportional to the state’s 2 million independents.
The region has also been a microcosm of the state in the past few presidential elections. Hillsborough and Pinellas both pulled for Obama in 2008, but for George Bush in 2004 and 2000.
Orlando and points east are always at play during elections, too, but for different reasons.
“In the Bay Area it’s a persuasion game. Voters will actually vote the candidate and not the party and they can be persuaded. It’s Charlie Crist country,” Eldon says. “From Orlando to the Space Coast it isn’t a persuasion game, it’s a turnout game — campaigns want to fire up the enthusiasm among registered voters and get them to the polls. Whoever gets more of its voters to the polls wins.”
That’s why so much effort is put into the Bay Area, which happens to be the state’s single largest media market (the more populous Southeast Florida is split into two markets). “There isn’t any statewide campaign that doesn’t buy ads in Tampa,” Eldon notes.
“That’s why there’s the old adage ‘as Tampa goes, so goes the state,’” concurs Ingram.