How North Florida Is Becoming More Democratic

Aug 6, 2020
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Picture the map of Florida. During elections, Democrats usually win the southern part of the state. The middle of the state can go either way. And Republicans typically dominate the north, and the GOP wins the north in part by stockpiling votes around Duval County, home to the city of Jacksonville. Duval has not voted to send a Democrat to the White House since Jimmy Carter in 1976. But this year, that could change, as NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Monique Sampson has lived most of her 23 years in Duval County.

MONIQUE SAMPSON: It can be very backwards politically. You have the Hemming Park that's named after a Confederate. You have Confederate Park, which is named after the Confederacy.

KHALID: But Sampson says she feels like something is changing. Earlier this summer, she organized a protest for racial justice. She says about 10,000 people showed up. She was floored. And it got her rethinking her own politics.

SAMPSON: Before this, before COVID, before George Floyd, I thought that Joe Biden and Trump were different wings on the same bird.

KHALID: She doesn't like a lot of Biden's policies, but she's decided to vote for him.

SAMPSON: I'm not thrilled to be voting for Joe Biden. I'm not thrilled about it at all, and for a very long time, I wasn't going to vote for him. And then COVID happened, and I was like, you know what? He sucks, for lack of a better term, but he's not criminal. Like, his actions aren't criminal in the sense of - he wouldn't view 150,000 deaths as progress.

KHALID: Sampson's story is part of a much bigger trend in Duval County. The area has become more Democratic in recent years. Pollsters, political scientists and party leaders all agree that's in part because of stronger turnout among its relatively large Black population. But the shift is also because of newcomers.

LISA KING: When I was born here, it was a town that was predominantly a military town and a manufacturing town.

KHALID: That's Lisa King. She's 57 and heavily involved in Democratic politics. Nowadays, she says, the area has developed into a hub for the medical, financial and insurance industries.

KING: Those companies bring their workforce from all over the country. So I think we have a lot of professionals that have moved here for work. And as we know, Donald Trump does worse with college-educated people.

KHALID: Data from the Florida Chamber of Commerce shows the two states where most Duval transplants have arrived from are New York and Pennsylvania, and the assumption is these outsiders often bring their more liberal politics down to the South. But it's not just about newcomers.

JOHN DELANEY: I'm a Republican voter.

KHALID: Twenty years ago, John Delaney served as mayor of Jacksonville, a city that feels like a big suburb.

DELANEY: But I think the country would be healthier and better off with somebody new there.

KHALID: He says even though he appreciates some of the judicial appointments the president has made, he just cannot vote for his party's nominee.

DELANEY: It's the style, the recklessness, the bombast, the attacking, the critiquing. And, you know, I tend to think of, you know, suburbs as Episcopalian in, you know, they expect a certain dress when you go to church. And it's just not the traditional kind of a feel.

KHALID: Delaney does not intend to vote for Biden, either. In Duval County, there are more registered Democrats than Republicans, but the GOP still usually wins. Mitt Romney and Donald Trump both won the county - though Romney performed better here - but in 2018, the Democratic candidate for governor won Duval, a first since the 1980s. Republicans and Democrats agree this November will be tight.

Matt Corrigan is a political science professor at Jacksonville University.

MATTHEW CORRIGAN: If Democrats could win Duval, I think it'd be really important, a symbolic victory.

KHALID: But he says all the surrounding counties are conservative, and Democrats are going to lose a lot of votes there.

CORRIGAN: And so the problem with - or the challenge of Florida is, you know, you just can't pick out a couple of counties now and say, OK, I win this county, and then I'm going to win the state. That's not true.

KHALID: Republicans, he says, are really good at finding votes in rural, exurban towns across Florida.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Anybody need to register?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...For Trump.

KHALID: This is Ponte Vedra, a wealthy, white, conservative community on the ocean. It's just southeast of Jacksonville, in neighboring St. Johns County. Republicans with no masks on are selling Trump face masks and T-shirts outside a grocery store.

BRANDON PATTY: It's a red county. It won over 60% for President Trump in 2016.

KHALID: Brandon Patty is the local GOP chair. Like most Republicans, he thinks the president deserves reelection.

PATTY: From a policy perspective, economically, he's done very well with deregulation, tax cut.

KHALID: St. Johns is one of the most college-educated counties in the state. Many people, some fleeing Duval, have been moving here.

PATTY: The secret started getting out about the great schools. And, hey, it only adds five minutes to your commute. It's safe. The sheriff's office is real good. Next thing you know, St. Johns just develops into a conservative heavyweight.

KHALID: When the president speaks about law and order, it's meant for a place like St. Johns. Fewer people live in the surrounding counties around Jacksonville, but both Republicans and Democrats are convinced there are secret Trump voters you don't see in the polls. And who wins Florida, they say, is not just about who's up in a poll on a given day; it's about which party is better at getting their voters out to actually vote.

Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.