Donald Trump’s prospects for winning the White House will probably rise or fall among the strip malls and 1,000-square-foot ranch homes of southwest Pasco County.
In this working-class suburb of Tampa Bay, finding people enthusiastically supporting Hillary Clinton is tough. Finding people enthusiastically supporting Trump is less difficult.
Finding people fed up with the status quo is a piece of cake.
“It’s not that I like Trump that much, it’s that I dislike Hillary so much. I don’t think [Barack] Obama did anything for us, and I see it continuing with Hillary. At least with Trump, there’s a chance for some change, and I’m all for change,” said 66-year-old retiree Ken Seekford, plunging into a bowl of soup at Jimmy’s Restaurant in downtown New Port Richey.
A lifelong Democrat who moved to Pasco from Maryland two years ago, Seekford is so turned off by Clinton that he switched his registration to Republican after watching the Democratic National Convention.
“Look at everything she was caught in,” he said. “With those emails, somebody asks her, ‘Did you wipe your hard drive?’ And she says, ‘What do you mean, with a rag?’ Come on, she’s smarter than that.”
Trump can’t win the presidency without winning Florida, and many observers question how he can win Florida if he fails to do better among Florida’s one in three minority voters. That’s not expected to happen.
So how is it that poll after poll shows Trump running neck-and-neck with Clinton, with a real shot at winning Florida’s 29 electoral votes? The answer lies behind the Advanced Auto Parts and Big Lots stores along U.S. 19, in 40-year-old subdivisions with names like Holiday Lakes Estates, Beacon Square and Regency Park.
Those who divide Florida into political territories call this corner of Pasco County Florida House District 36. And unlike the vast majority of legislative districts across America, the roughly 100,000 voters here tend to be independent-minded and unpredictable.
Thirty-five percent are registered Republicans, 34 percent Democrats and 31 percent belong to neither party. In 2008 and in 2012, Obama narrowly carried Florida House District 36, and narrowly won Florida. But a poll of likely voters taken in July by a Democratic polling firm found Trump with a double-digit lead over Clinton — 51 percent to 39 percent — in this district.
Tailor-made for Trump
Southwest Pasco County looks tailor-made for Trump: 90 percent white, nearly 90 percent without college degrees, median household income of about $34,000. Also, widespread anxiety over crime and a deteriorating quality of life.
In the 1970s, this was a blue-collar retirement mecca that attracted Northeasterners who could buy a comfortable two-bedroom ranch with attached garage for $10,000. Many of these same homes sold for more than $140,000 during the peak of the housing bubble in 2006, only to see their values plummet to less than $50,000 today.
The numbers help explain how Trump is defying the conventional political wisdom that Florida’s fast-changing demographics will make the state a steep climb for a Republican nominee so weak among minority voters.
That conventional wisdom also may underestimate Clinton’s unpopularity based on conversations inside the VFW post, outside the Walmart and inside Jimmy’s Restaurant.
“She should be in jail, and you or me would be if we did what she did with those emails,” said Dorothy Jay of Holiday over lunch at Jimmy’s with her husband. “At least Trump is not going to be taking payoffs from people wanting something.”
“I don’t trust her, and we don’t need another four years of Obama,” said Alan Jay, who moved with his wife to the area from Long Island in 1994. “Trump’s problem is that he has diarrhea of the mouth. He speaks before he thinks, but what comes out of his mouth is honest.”
Republican pollster Wes Anderson, who works for the Rebuilding America Now super PAC helping Trump, said Clinton has at least as much to do with Trump’s strength in Florida as Trump.
“Everyone talks about Trump’s negatives, and we kind of miss the point that Hillary Clinton has just as strong negatives as he does — and in some ways hers are more telling,” Anderson said. “This is a change election, and she is anything but that. Whether she likes it or not, she wears the mantle of the political establishment. … That is actually what’s happening in Florida.”
Even as Clinton dramatically outspends Trump on TV ads in Florida and builds a more robust voter-turnout operation, the candidates are virtually tied. The average of recent Florida polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com on Friday had Trump with 45.1 percent support and Clinton with 44.4 percent.
“The assumption is it’s because Trump is running up the score in the markets where Republicans have to run up the score when they win Florida,” Anderson said. “I think that’s only half of the story. There are lots of places where she is under-performing, and I do think it’s going to come down to Tampa and Orlando.”
Candidates and political operatives in competitive legislative races in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties say they see Trump running much stronger than expected.
Democratic state Rep. Amanda Murphy represents District 36 and keeps her distance from Clinton while knocking on doors or talking with residents, many of whom recently experienced severe flooding from Hurricane Hermine. She said she understands the sentiments of Trump backers she encounters.
“People do want change, and I understand that,” said Murphy, who stresses to people that she is not a lifelong politician and is focused on Tallahassee, not Washington.
The district used to be represented by Republican Mike Fasano, now Pasco’s tax collector, who said he hears plenty of anecdotal evidence about Trump’s strength.
“I don’t know that they are as much in love with Donald Trump as they are disgusted with the whole process, and they have been disgusted by it for years,” Fasano said. “People are just tired of the old regimes in Washington, whether it be Republicans or Democrats, and whether it’s Mitch McConnell or John Boehner or Hillary Clinton. They’re just tired of it. They feel understandably like they’re not being told the truth, and they’re tired of being pushed aside.”
Even if Trump wins this district comfortably, he could lose Florida. Charlie Crist, the populist Republican-turned Democratic candidate for governor, beat Rick Scott by 10 percentage points here in 2014 but still lost narrowly statewide.
Four years ago, Mitt Romney lost this district to Obama by 2,404 votes, or nearly 4 percentage points. But this year’s super wealthy Republican nominee is connecting far better with the blue-collar voters of Pasco than 2012’s super wealthy nominee. Among the transplanted Northeasterners, Trump is more Queens than Wall Street.
“Trump works with laborers and goes up and pats them on the back. Hillary doesn’t do that,” said Seekford. “Hillary doesn’t even want to touch a commoner. It might rub off on her.”
At Jimmy’s with his wife, 84-year-old Democrat Joe Trumbauer talked about how tough it is caring for his wife with Alzheimer’s because he can’t afford help. He’s a loyal Democrat, a former Mack Truck auto worker from Allentown, Pennsylvania, but is intrigued by Trump.
“We didn’t get a Social Security raise in the last two or three years — and that’s Democrats in the White House,” Trumbauer said. “I do in a way want to vote for Trump, but I’m afraid to because I don’t know what he’s going to do.”
Even Clinton supporters in the area sounded sheepish about supporting her.
Inside Randolph Ford VFW Post 7845 in Port Richey, where most of the boisterous men and women at the bar said they liked Trump, retired Air Force veteran John Rodgers, 80, said Clinton supporters like himself tend to be more low-key.
“It’s because she’s been in politics for so long,’’ Rodgers said. “It’s hard to get excited about and trust someone who’s been in politics so long.”
Contact Adam Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @AdamSmithTimes