HOW DUVAL SHAPED PAST ELECTIONS: Why Jacksonville is critical to winning the presidency – The Florida Times-Union

Andrew Pantazi|Florida Times-Union

In 2016, The Florida Times-Union took an in-depth look at the role Jacksonville played in every presidential election since 1948. The Times-Union has updated that story for 2020.

Even as the novel coronavirus has had a muted effect on in-person rallies, the importance of Duval County to winning the presidency has remained apparent, even if it's taken more of a backseat to other must-win regions of the country for Democrats and Republicans alike, like those in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Donald Trump rallied here in September, drawing a crowd of thousands to the Cecil Airport, where Trump criticized Democrats as "anti-police radicals."

While Joe Biden has not visited, his running mate, Kamala Harris, came to town to kick off early voting, and Biden's wife, Jill, who is a teacher herself, has hosted a Zoom discussion with local teachers and parents.

Rather than running up the score in North Florida, like traditional Republicans, Trump won 2020 largely from his better performance in the Tampa Bay area. Trumps top three gains over Romneys results came in Pasco, Pinellas and Volusia counties.

This week, Biden and Trump held dueling events in Tampa on the same day. In October, Vice President Mike Pence canceled a Jacksonville rally and scheduled one in Lakeland instead.

In terms of Northeast Florida, a tie in Duval County "essentially would be a win for Trump," University of North Florida political scientist Michael Binder said.

CNN called Duval the "largest swing county in the largest swing state."

NPR called Duval a "surprise battleground."

For more than a century, Jacksonville votes have helped determine who wins the presidency, even when candidates ignored Duval.

The Times-Union interviewed staffers and volunteers from most campaigns, going back to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. The Times-Union relied on newspaper accounts, academic journals and books to reconstruct Jacksonville's influence on each of the campaigns.

Here is where William McKinley became the first candidate to address a black audience, when he sought black delegates support for the 1896 Republican nomination. Here is where Jimmy Carters anti-establishment, Baptist handshaking and Ronald Reagans positive message, showed that no virtue may be as great for a politician as being an outsider.

To win the election, Trump needs Florida. FiveThirtyEight's model for the election says he has a less than 1 percent chance of winning the presidency without Florida, but his chance of winning jumps to nearly one inthree if he wins the state.

Trump has many paths to winning Florida. Like in 2016, he could run up the vote in exurban and suburban counties, like when he won the I-4 corridor, flipping counties that voted for Obama. He could keep the margins closer in the state's biggest counties, making gains with Hispanic voters in placeslike Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Orange. He could also win if Black voters in North Florida counties like Duval simply choose to abstain from the election.

Duval is one of the few parts of the state that shifted toward Democrats in 2016 and continued that shift in 2018, even as Democrats lost the state both years.

In 2016, although Trump won the state, he was not able toreturn Jacksonville to the types of victories George W. Bush earned in 2000 and 2004, by 17 and 16 points.

As the county with the third-most black residents in the state, Democrats wonder if Biden and Harriscan earn the enthusiasm Andrew Gillum did two years ago when he won Duval by more than four points.

But as Gillum proved, Democrats winning Duval while losing votes in Miami-Dade can still lead to a Republican victory.

Since the Civil War, Jacksonville has been home to a significant black population as well as Southern whites, and since the Civil War, candidates have tried to delicately court both.

More: How many Floridians have voted so far in the November 2020 election?

As the bedrock of religious conservatives, Trump could mobilize a base of white evangelical volunteers more than Mitt Romney or John McCain could. Can Trump return the Republican Party to the 16- and 17-point margins in Jacksonville that Bush experienced in 2000 and 2004? Or could Biden win as a Democrat in Duval, the first Democratic presidential candidate since Carter in 1976?

Frequently, Democrats and Republicans alike came to Jacksonville to preach of fiscal conservatism, military strength and religious values. In years past, Jacksonville has been a magnet for gaffes. Here, the momentum has changed. And repeatedly, in the last 12 years, candidates came here on the eve of the election.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon visited Hemming Park the same day. Kennedy used Nixons speech to attack the Republican for pandering. In 1980, after weeks of struggling, Reagan earned a wave of attention when here he attacked Carters defense secretary.

In 1992, George H.W. Bush apologized here for a campaign statement that called Bill Clinton a sniveling hypocrite. In 2000, when news broke that George W. Bush once pleaded guilty to driving under the influence, he came here to pray with evangelist Billy Graham.

In 2008, John McCain infamously declared the fundamentals of our economy are strong, the same day the Lehman Brothers bank declared bankruptcy. Obama came three times, including the day before the election, to hammer McCain.

As we look forward to Tuesday, when the nation will sit by television and computer screen waiting to learn who will win and who will lose the presidency, lets look back as well. Perhaps something in Jacksonvilles recent history can tell us what to look for in Duvals results.

Hillary Clinton didn't win Duval, but she surprised many when she kept the county to a one-point margin.

In part, it was surprising because Trump, not Clinton, had spent considerable energy campaigning here, while Clinton largely ignored the area.

Clinton and her running mate, TimKaine, never visited Duval.

A Barack Obama rally at the University of North Florida in the final week drew lines stretching across campus.

Bill Clinton, the former boss of former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, visited twice.

While Clintons margin of victories in urban counties increased from Barack Obamas in 2012, Trump dominated in the suburbs, enough to hold onto 49 percent of the vote compared to Clinton's 48 percent.

Everything I thought I knew about how to win an election, I re-learned, Susie Wiles, a Jacksonville political consultant who headed Trumps Florida campaign, said at the time.

Trump earned nearly 93,000 more votes than Clinton inClay and St. Johns counties, two of his best in the state.

Trump drew thousands of supporters at each of his three 2016 rallies, but it's possible those voters came in from Duval's suburbs. As Duval shifted to the left, its suburbs, already heavily Republican, became even more so.

Winning Duval by a large margin wasn't necessary.

Mitt Romney failed to reach George W. Bushs earlier Jacksonville momentum.

He could win, his campaign said, if he brought back double-digit margins to Duval.

We knew they, the Democrats, couldnt replicate 2008, said Drew Messer, Romneys Florida campaign director. The campaign, similar to Barack Obamas in 2008, decided early on to focus here, but Messer said a brutal primary campaign damaged him too much with the faith-based community. It supported him, but not as enthusiastically as with Bush. It's why you see Trump have rallies here and in St. Augustine today [Oct. 24].

In the last week before Election Day, both campaigns blitzed North Florida, though Obama was off the campaign trail dealing with Hurricane Sandy.

Romneys VP candidate, Paul Ryan, visited Fernandina Beach just 8 days before Election Day. Two days later, Romney came to Metropolitan Park, where he told a packed crowd on a weeknight, with enough energy like that, I think were going to win Florida.

Michelle Obama came the next day, her third visit that year, alongside Stevie Wonder for a concert at the Prime Osborn Convention Center. Jacksonville had the largest share of black residents of any city in Florida and President Obama had come within 1.9 percentage points just four years earlier. But Alvin Brown, the citys first black mayor, refused to campaign for Obama, and initially, Brown wouldnt even say if he would vote for Obama.

Jacksonville had the largest share of black residents of any city in Florida and President Obama had come within 1.9 percentage points just four years earlier, but now he faced new problems. Alvin Brown, the citys highest-ranking Democrat and the first black mayor of Jacksonville who had won office just a year before, refused to campaign for Obama, and initially, Brown wouldnt even say if he would vote for Obama. (Since then, Brown has acted as a surrogate for Hillary Clintons campaign across the country, and he greeted former President Bill Clinton when he came to town.)

In the end, Obama didnt improve upon his 2008 numbers, losing Duval by 3.6 points, but it was close enough for him to just barely win Florida.

In no other election did candidates fight for Duvals votes as much as in 2008.

Barack Obamas campaign made an unprecedented effort for North Florida. Obamas campaign identified where registered black voters werent voting, and Duval had the highest potential, said Steve Schale, Obamas Florida director and a local native. Schale argued they could take away one or two of those places Republicans have to win by double-digit margins. … So what if you crush your turnout in Miami-Dade? You can lose Duval and North Florida by enough that they make it up.

Obama and his wife visited four times, drawing large audiences.

While Sarah Palin drew 7,000, McCain didnt drum up enthusiasm. His campaign predicted large crowds on a September weekday. Only about 3,000 came. That Tuesday morning, his campaign released an ad saying the economy was in crisis, but with empty and covered seats as a backdrop McCain infamously announced, "the fundamentals of our economy are strong," on the same day that the Lehman Brothers investment bank filed for bankruptcy, the day after Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan called the financial crisis a "once-in-a-century type of event."

A week later, Obama drew 25,000 to Metropolitan Park. When he returned on the eve of Election Day, he reminded the crowd of what McCain said, drawing loud boos. You dont need to boo, he said. You just need to vote.

Obamas campaign teamed up with churches, barbershops and beauty salons to find new voters. In 2004, George W. Bush had beat John Kerry in Duval by nearly 62,000 votes, or 16 points. McCain won by only 7,900 votes.

Despite John Kerrys efforts to improve upon Al Gores dismal performance in North Florida, he couldnt match the overwhelming support Jacksonville gave George W. Bush.

Kerry visited in 2002 and 2003, and then twice in 2004.

Theres nothing conservative about a Bush administration that runs deficits as far as the eye could see, he said in May. We deserve a president who looks Americans in the eye and tells them the truth, he said in September.

In mid-October, Bush touted his social conservative credentials at the football stadium. His campaign said 53,000 people attended, higher than any other event that year.

The day before, Sen. John Edwards, Kerrys vice presidential pick, brought out only 2,500 supporters.

Cheney also came that month. And that year, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had its national convention here, where Edwards also spoke.

Democrats hoped to win 44 percent of the vote, matching Clinton in 1996, but their hopes to stop a slide in North Florida failed. In North Floridas 36 counties, Clinton won 16 in 96, Gore won 5, and Kerry won only 4. He only got 42 percent in Duval.

The Republicans said they wanted Bush to win here with 60 percent. Four years earlier, hed won 57 percent, creating a 44,000-vote margin.

It seemed every Sunday the campaigns sent surrogates to local churches. Al Gore went to two prominent black churches a week before the election, then the Sunday before the election, Edwards came to another to invoke the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. That day a Bush campaign official went to First Baptist downtown. The next night, Jeb and another Bush brother rallied here.

Ultimately, Kerry gained only a half-percentage point over Gores performance, and Bush beat Kerry in Duval by nearly 62,000 votes.

While much of the initial attention in the disputed election of 2000 came to Palm Beachs butterfly ballot and hanging chads, Duval actually had significantly more votes tossed out.

In Jacksonville, 27,000 ballots about 62 percent in precincts that voted for Al Gore were thrown out. The sample ballot told voters to vote all pages, but the actual ballot stretched the presidential candidates onto two pages, telling voters to turn page to continue voting.

George W. Bush beat Al Gore in Florida by 537 votes, despite Gore winning the countrys popular vote by a half-million.

Though Duvals ballots may have tipped the election, Bush earned 44,000 more votes here than Gore, a nearly 17-point advantage.

During the campaign, Gores team largely ignored Jacksonville, focusing on South Florida. Bush, John McCain, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson and Gores wife all visited Jacksonville, but Gore himself only came once to a high school during the primary.

Just two weeks before Election Day, a Bush rally at The Jacksonville Landing drew about 10,000.

Because of how close the election was and how many ballots were thrown out, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown ramped up voter education in 2002 by means of her own Quick Picks, a copy of the ballot with endorsements and instructions on how to vote. After the election, Brown and others sued over the Duval County ballot, saying Gores voters were especially disenfranchised in Jacksonville.

Conventional wisdom said Bob Dole shouldve won Florida.

No Democrat had carried the state in 20 years. Republican voter registration was surging. Republicans held the state Senate. Jacksonville elected its first Republican mayor since Reconstruction, and Dole, a World War II veteran, lived in Florida part-time.

Instead, he barely beat Bill Clinton in Duval, and he lost the state.

Two weeks before Election Day, Doles Jacksonville Landing rally failed to get the kind of news coverage most rallies there do. The photo op was hurt by 15 or so Hooters employees hanging over a railing and by a small plane that interrupted with a U.S. flag and a sign that read, Don't Export Jobs - Vote Perot.

That same day, his campaign manager asked the third-party candidate to endorse Dole if the Republican adopted his platform. Perot declined.

Eight years earlier, Dole faced trouble here when he abruptly fired two top aides and left them on a tarmac. During the 96 campaign, he again fired two top aides, after losing a primary.

Bill Clinton and Dole each visited Jacksonville the summer of 1995, Dole to talk Social Security, and Clinton to talk about punishing criminals and to congratulate the city for getting the Jaguars. "Don't be discouraged by the rough starts, he said. I've had a lot of rough starts in my life."

More: We mailed (another) 62 packages in swing states. Here's where it went well and didn't.

Rather than running as an outsider, Dole pitched himself as an insider who knows how to work the system.

Pat Buchanans primary bid in 1996 struggled with something familiar to Donald Trump this year. Both drew support from white supremacists. The day after Buchanans chairman stepped down because he was linked to white supremacists, Buchanans organizer in Duval County said while phone-banking for Buchanan she would also ask voters to join a white-supremacist group. Buchanan blamed Dole, accusing him of sending the woman to his campaign.

The 1992 election in Jacksonville in particular foretold how politics could transform lifestyle.

As President George H.W. Bush faced an attack from the right in Pat Buchanan, the spread of right-wing talk radio took hold here. Some restaurants even set aside listening rooms for Rush Limbaughs radio show, according to a news account.

Democrats feared black voters might not turn out, and Jacksonvilles chapter of the NAACP began an operation to register voters.

In Jacksonville, Bill Clinton made what The New York Times called a naked plea for black votes, and residents compared him favorably to Jesse Jackson, who four years earlier had energized black voters when he failed to earn the nomination.

When Ross Perot led in the polls, observers wondered what should happen if the U.S. House must decide the next president. Jacksonvilles representative, Democrat Charlie Bennett, bucked the party and said he would honor the candidate who won his district. Perot faltered, failing to garner an electoral vote, and he did even worse here than across Florida and the nation.

In 90-degree heat in August, Bush arrived at the Jacksonville Landing to chants of Four More Years and a glowing introduction from Jacksonvilles Democratic mayor, Ed Austin. What a fantastic Jacksonville turnout, Bush said. This is good for the soul.

He took a more aggressive stance against Clintons proposals, calling the Democrats big-government, high-taxing liberals who would decimate Jacksonvilles military economy and socialize medicine.

Yet he also had to criticize one of his top aides for spreading a document that called Clinton a sniveling hypocrite and referred to his sex scandals. This is not how I want to run the campaign, Bush said.

On Election Day, voter turnout was so high in the town of Bryceville, 20 miles west of Jacksonville, that election officials ran out of ballots. They had to make copies of sample ballots. And in Jacksonville, 46,000 more voters came to the polls than four years earlier, dropping the share of Bushs votes but not enough to give Florida to Clinton. Clinton lost the state by just under two percentage points, and he lost Duval by 12.6 points.

In 1988, Jacksonville played a more diminished role in the election, in part because the Democrats nominated a liberal candidate who wasnt seen as having much of a chance here and in part because Republicans were still riding a wave of electoral victories Ronald Reagan earned the previous two elections.

While Jacksonville wasnt an important city for Bushs presidential chances, 1988 was significant for local Republicans

Republican candidates associated local Democrats with their nominee, Michael Dukakis. From Buddy McKay, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, all the way down to state legislative races, campaign ads called Democrats liberals in the mold of Dukakis.

Registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans nearly three-to-one in Duval, so Republicans set up booths in Regency Square Mall to persuade Democrats to switch parties.

Dukakis had picked Lloyd Bentsen, a conservative Democrat from Texas, as his running mate, and both visited Jacksonville with tailored messages.

Dukakis spoke about the need for more military funding than Bush was proposing. But when he arrived, Jacksonvilles mayor, Tommy Hazouri, kept talking as clouds rolled over. The rain came faster than the speech, I guess, Hazouri remembered.

When Dukakis finally took over, a rain storm hit, and he threw away his speech, rushing through talking points.

Dukakis hammered conservative points, like his promise to wage an all-out war against drugs, and he berated Ronald Reagan for credit card economics, a reference to growing deficits.

Days later, Lloyd Bentsen came and declared it was Quayle season, a reference to Republican vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle, who was in a controversy about his National Guard service. Mike Dukakis served in Korea. Lloyd Bentsen flew (bombing) missions in Europe, he said. Mike Dukakis and I both know what it takes to serve in defense of our country and to fight for freedom.

The day before the election, Democratic Sen. Bob Graham came to Jacksonville, except he never mentioned the unpopular candidate by name. Instead, he praised past popular Democratic presidents, trying unsuccessfully to prevent down-ballot Republicans from throwing out Democrats.

Despite visits from Dukakis, Bentsen and Graham, the Democrats floundered, and Duval overwhelmingly voted for Bush. He beat even Reagans margins, winning Duval by 26 points.

In 1984, Florida had lost its status as a swing state. While Walter Mondale relied on votes in Jacksonville to get the Democratic nomination, neither Mondale nor President Ronald Reagan needed to visit Jacksonville during the general election, a sign of how difficult it was to win the South back for progressive Democrats.

More than anyone else, Jesse Jackson, the civil rights activist, relied on Jacksonville to mobilize a base of black votes that would later become essential to Barack Obama. He came to the Bethel Baptist Institutional Church, the citys oldest baptist church created back in 1838 and later split and segregated after the Civil War. There he made a sermon-like appeal, asking those in the congregation wanting to contribute $1,000 to come forward, then $500, $100 and $50. He raised about $9,000, The New York Times reported.

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HOW DUVAL SHAPED PAST ELECTIONS: Why Jacksonville is critical to winning the presidency - The Florida Times-Union

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