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.
First black mayor
Last year, this conservative stronghold elected Democrat Alvin Brown, a former Bill Clinton aide, as Jacksonville’s first African-American mayor.
Democrats hailed it as a huge victory for their party, though Brown is no conventional Democrat. A social conservative, pro-business Democrat, Brown had the backing of some high-profile Republicans, including former St. Joe CEO Peter Rummell, and his opponent was a hard right tea party conservative.
Over the past year, Brown, 50, has slashed city spending, including his own salary, hammered out money-saving contracts with public unions, and launched initiatives to improve schools and better serve the 240,000 Jacksonville residents with military connections.
“I didn’t vote for the guy, but I love Alvin Brown,” gushed Ed Malin, a sandwich shop owner and tea party activist in Jacksonville Beach. “He wrote a budget smaller than the previous year, he’s fighting the Republican sheriff who wants to increase taxes. I love the guy.”
Brown’s City Hall office includes photos of him with Clinton and Al Gore and former Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown, but the mayor is clear he won’t lift a finger to help Obama in this critical county.
He waxed on about accountability, efficiency and the bright future of Jacksonville, while repeatedly steering the conversation away from the presidential race. He declined to say even whether he will vote for Obama or Romney, citing a campaign promise not to get involved in partisan campaigns.
“I’m not going to get involved in presidential politics,” said Brown, a statement that would be shocking if it came from almost any other big city mayor in Florida. “I ran a bipartisan campaign, I have a bipartisan administration with Republicans and Democrats. I made a promise I would focus on governing, not politics.”
His caution speaks volumes about the politics of Jacksonville. But Duval County, like Florida itself, is always changing and it may not be too many years before a Democrat elected countywide there can safely embrace his party.
While national polls suggest Democrats lag Republicans in enthusiasm heading into November, conversations across Duval in recent days found Obama’s base determined to give him a second term.
“It’s going to take more than four years to undo all the mess he faced when he got there,” said Democrat John Carter, brushing off the suggestion that Obama fell short of his campaign promises. “He can only do what he’s allowed to do. He still has to contend with Congress.”
In his east Jacksonville barbershop, 29-year-old Navy veteran and Obama campaign volunteer Maurice Miller presses all his customers to register to vote and turn out in November.
“For so long people in this community felt their voices weren’t heard. When they saw Obama win, they said, ‘Our voice does matter, it does count,’” said Miller. “The Obama campaign is really trying to spread the word to the young voters involved, and that’s what I’m working hard at, too. I think that’s what’s going to make or break this election.”
Until Obama in 2008, Democrats had never launched a sophisticated and well-organized voter turnout operation in Jacksonville. Today there are signs that the electorate in the seventh-most populous county in Florida is in the midst of transition.
Obama came close to winning four years ago and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson trounced Katherine Harris in Duval in 2006. In the Republican tidal wave of 2010, Democrat Alex Sink lost Duval to Rick Scott by less than 6 percentage points. In 2008, John Crescimbeni became the first Democrat to win a competitive election for countywide office since 1995 when he won a special election for an at-large City Council seat and he overwhelmingly won re-election last year.
Jacksonville Republican consultant Susie Wiles, who ran Scott’s gubernatorial campaign, points to transplants moving to the beaches, south and east Duval as part of the reason politics is changing in the county.
“Northeast Florida used to be solidly conservative. It’s not so much any more,’’ Wiles said. “Duval is still conservative, but probably broader minded than it was a decade ago.”
The growing African-American and Hispanic populations also play a key role.
“In the year 2025 the line between whites and nonwhites is going to cross one another, and some years prior to that it’s going to tilt against Republicans,” said former state GOP chairman Tom Slade of Jacksonville. “As Republicans, we’ve got to go sell our philosophy as the right kind of philosophy to people who consider themselves minorities today. That’s the only chance we’ve got.”
In terms of November, though, Slade and other Republicans see a GOP electorate far more energized in Duval than four years ago.
“This is not Obama vs. Romney; This is Obama vs. Obama,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a very good turnout with Republicans, but it doesn’t have anything to do with Romney. From our side, it has to do with whipping Obama.”
Tampa Bay Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.