JACKSONVILLE -- If ever there’s a place to see if Democratic enthusiasm for Barack Obama in 2012 matches that of 2008, it’s Duval County.
One of Florida’s top battlegrounds, this longtime Republican stronghold is also one of the most confounding and unpredictable electorates you’ll find.
Drive 30 minutes from any area in this New South, Navy town and you meet every stereotype imaginable: lifelong, white Democrats with horses and pickups, inner-city African-Americans fretting about street crime, social conservatives in a Baptist church encompassing nine blocks, northeastern retirees in flip-flops on the beach, or socially moderate Starbucks Republicans mingling in trendy restaurants.
“It’s one of the most misunderstood counties in Florida,’’ said Democratic pollster Dave Beattie of Fernandina Beach, north of Jacksonville in Nassau County.
In this bastion of conservatism, the past two Republican mayors of Jacksonville raised taxes and fees significantly, while the new Democratic mayor has tea party activists hailing his fiscal conservatism. It’s a county that statewide Republican candidates routinely win by more than 15 percentage points, but can be nail-bitingly close with the right Democrat on the ballot.
“People think that Republicans win here by gigantic margins, that Duval compensates for the Democratic strongholds in South Florida. Republicans do consistently win, but it can be close,” Beattie said.
George W. Bush beat John Kerry in Duval by 62,000 votes in 2004, while former Jacksonville resident John McCain squeaked past Obama in 2008 by less than 8,000 votes.
Few people expect President Obama to match his performance from four years ago, however.
“His supporters are not going to be as fired up this time,’’ predicted attorney Kenneth Boston, inhaling a stogie while sporting a bow tie and glistening an Obama watch at a Jacksonville Beach watering hole. “It’s impossible to match the excitement of last time. It was a first then, it was historic.”
The question is not whether Obama can win Duval, but rather how close he can keep it. If the campaign can’t keep Duval closer than 7 or 8 percentage points from Republican Mitt Romney, it becomes harder to make up those votes elsewhere in the state.
“He did a great job turning out people who usually don’t vote, and the question is whether he can do that again,’’ said Florida Republican Party chairman Lenny Curry of Jacksonville. “For us, the Republicans for Mitt Romney, it’s a necessity to have a pretty good margin to offset our losses in other parts of the state.”
The African-American vote is key. Nearly 28 percent of Duval’s 530,000 voters are African-Americans who overwhelmingly vote Democratic. The data-driven Obama campaign four years ago saw that tens of thousands of registered black voters hadn’t been showing up at the polls and launched the biggest voter mobilization ever in the area. Obama campaigned in Jacksonville three times in 2008, including the day before Election Day.
This year, Obama is ramping it up still more, with one campaign office opened in January and two more to open within weeks. Obama and the first lady have each visited Duval County in the past three months. The administration recently sped up the arrival of a battleship, the USS New York, to Jacksonville’s Naval Station Mayport and fast-tracked a study of deepening Jacksonville’s ship channel.