How This Conservative Florida County Became A Surprise 2020 Battleground
Before COVID-19 and before the death of George Floyd, Monique Sampson said she thought Joe Biden and President Trump were "different wings on the same bird."
The 23-year-old American history teacher with dangling earrings that proclaim, "A woman's place is in the struggle," had been hoping for a Bernie Sanders presidency. She still doesn't like plenty of Biden's policies — and she's not thrilled he's the presumptive Democratic nominee. But a summer of chaos has made her reassess her own politics.
"For a very long time I wasn't going to vote for [Biden]," Sampson said. "And then COVID happened. And I was like, 'You know what, he sucks,' for lack of a better term. But he's not criminal. His actions aren't criminal in the sense that he wouldn't view 150,000 deaths as progress."
Sampson's story is part of a larger shift underway in Florida's Duval County — one that mirrors many of the headwinds facing Trump in large swaths of the country. In a county that for more than four decades has been a reliable Republican vote, Democrats are sensing new optimism ahead of the November elections, thanks to intense anti-Trump energy among Black voters like Sampson, young voters and college-educated professionals in the suburbs.
Duval County, a traditionally conservative area in Florida's northeast corner along the Atlantic Ocean, hasn't voted for a Democratic president since Jimmy Carter in 1976. But in recent presidential elections, it's begun tilting more toward the Democratic Party. In 2016, Trump won Duval County by 1.5 percentage points — one of his slimmest margins in the state.
Pollsters, political scientists and party leaders all agree the county's changing landscape is largely due to demographics and grassroots organizing. Stronger turnout among the county's relatively large Black population combined with an influx of college-educated transplants has turned this once-reliable red county into a contested political battleground in a must-win state for Trump.
New energy from activists
In the late 1960s, Duval County and the city of Jacksonville merged into one entity, creating a large sprawling city that feels like an overgrown suburb. Trump has struggled in recent polling with suburban voters nationwide, and the same trend seems evident in Duval.
Mitt Romney won the county by a bigger margin in 2012 than Trump did in 2016 (though Romney lost the state of Florida and Trump won it).
Beyond demographics, activists point to the work that progressive groups like Indivisible and the New Florida Majority have been doing on the ground.
Traditionally, after a midterm, the state party packs up and goes home, but after the 2018 elections, half a dozen Democratic staffers stayed on the ground to prepare for the presidential race.
Activists like Sampson, a cofounder of the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, organized protests for racial justice this summer with voter registration tables.
Sampson is frank when describing her hometown.
"It can be very backwards politically," she said, sitting on the steps of the county courthouse in downtown Jacksonville. "If you drive down the street from here ... you have Hemming Park — that's named after a Confederate. You have Confederate Park, which is named after the Confederacy."
But as critical as she is, Sampson admits her county feels like it's changing. Earlier this summer, she organized a protest for racial justice. She said 10,000 people showed up. She was floored.
New residents, new politics
The old assumption was that this corner of Florida was more culturally akin to South Georgia than the Democratic enclaves of Miami and Orlando. Multiple people said they couldn't have envisioned a time when Confederate statues would be taken down.
"When I was born here it was a town that was predominantly a military town and a manufacturing town," said Lisa King, 57, the former chair of the Duval County Democratic Party. "We were always told here, at the local party, our job is to turn out Democrats and try to keep the margin of loss down to a minimum."
But those margins began to tighten significantly around 2008, a change local Democrats say was helped by the attention the Obama campaign paid to the Jacksonville area.
Nowadays, the area has developed from a small Navy town into a hub for the medical, financial and insurance industries. "We have Mayo Clinic now," said King, referring to the renowned Minnesota medical center that has opened a campus in Jacksonville. "Those companies bring their workforce from all over the country ... we have a lot of professionals that have moved here for work, and as we know Donald Trump does worse with college-educated people."
Data from the Florida Chamber of Commerce finds the two states where most Duval transplants have arrived from in recent years are New York and Pennsylvania. The assumption is these outsiders are bringing their more liberal politics to the South. Voter registration data seems to somewhat align with this theory.
Young voters and disenchanted Republicans
But the shift is not tied solely to new college-educated voters moving into the area. The new chair of the Democratic Party elected last year is a 28-year-old Black man, the youngest leader in the local party's history. The average age in Duval is younger than many other Florida counties, and young voters tend to be more liberal.
At the same time, there are some Republicans who have grown disenchanted with the president. While this frustration will not necessarily translate into votes for Biden, it has become one factor in Duval's changing landscape.
"I don't like the the brand of Republicanism that he's brought about," said Jack Rowan, a recent high school graduate who registered as a Republican because of fiscal policy. "I think it's a brand built on division, more than a brand built on unifying people."
Rowan has decided he won't be voting for Trump; the president's response to the Black Lives Matter protests deeply bothered him. But he's also not yet sure if he'll vote for Biden.
A number of locals said the Republican Party under Trump has morphed into a very different type of Republicanism from the traditional politics that once attracted moderate Chamber of Commerce types in Jacksonville.
"I'm a Republican voter," said John Delaney, who served as Jacksonville's mayor from 1995 to 2003. "But I think the country would be healthier and better off with somebody new there."
Delaney said even though he appreciates some of the judicial appointments and economic decisions the president has made in office, he cannot convince himself to support Trump in November.
"It's the style, the recklessness, the bombast, the attacking, the critiquing," he said that has turned him off from the president, more than any one specific policy. Delaney said he tends to be more liberal on immigration than where the current Republican administration stands, but won't be voting for Biden this November either. He may write in another Republican instead.
"You know, I tend to think of suburbs as Episcopalian, and they expect a certain dress when you go to church," he said in explaining why he thinks the president seems to be struggling in Duval.
"The single most important county"
In Duval County, there are more registered Democrats than Republicans, but the GOP still usually wins elections. Jacksonville has a Republican mayor. The GOP has a majority on the city council as well.
But in 2018, Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor, won Duval County — a first since the 1980s.
Republicans and Democrats agree this November will be tight.
"Arguably the single most important county in the single most important state in the most important election in a century is Duval County," said Dean Black, the GOP county chair.
Black is convinced that more than demographic change, Democrats started doing better in the area because Republicans became complacent over the years with little competition.
"The party did not do its job," he said.
One side effect of the now-cancelled plans to bring the Republican National Convention to the area, he said, was that the local party was able to build up a 5,000 person volunteer list.
But Black admits an outright victory in the county this November will be challenging.
"If Democrats could win Duval I think it would be very important, a symbolic victory," said Matt Corrigan, a political science professor at Jacksonville University who has written a book about the 2016 presidential election in Florida.
Finding the votes
Corrigan said what happens in Duval is only part of the story. All of the surrounding counties are far more conservative. And Democrats, he said, will undoubtedly lose a lot of votes in those communities.
"The challenge of Florida is 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 just not true," said Corrigan.
Republicans, he said, are experts at at finding votes in rural, exurban towns across Florida.
"As they get their polling and other data, if they see, well, Republicans are down 20,000 votes in the state, they go look for those 20,000 votes," he said.
On a recent weekend, Republicans with no masks on were selling Trump face masks and T-shirts outside a grocery store in Ponte Vedra, a wealthy, overwhelmingly white community on the ocean just southeast of Jacksonville in neighboring St. Johns County.
St. Johns is one of the most college-educated counties in the state. The president's enduring popularity here runs counter to trends in other well-educated suburban enclaves and it's a sign of hope for the GOP. Many people — some fleeing Duval — have been moving here in recent years for better schools and cheaper housing.
"The secret started getting out about the great schools," said Brandon Patty, the GOP chair in St. Johns County. "It's safe, the sheriff's office is real good. Next thing you know, St. Johns develops into a conservative heavyweight ... it's a red county."
When the president speaks about law and order, it's a message meant for a place like St. Johns. In 2016, over 60% of voters here chose Trump.
And most Republicans think he deserves reelection.
"From a policy perspective, economically he's done very well with the deregulation, with the tax cut," said Patty.
Ultimately, some Republicans say the demographics and the momentum nationwide will make it difficult to win Duval County. And so for Trump to keep Florida red, they'll need to focus on a broader game plan.
Black, the Duval County GOP chair, said he's fundamentally focused on a "North Florida" strategy.
"The bottom line is we need North Florida to turn out the Republican vote totals to overwhelm South Florida," Black said. "The truth is, a vote for President Trump in Duval County will count the same as one from St. Johns County or Nassau County or Leon County, right? It doesn't really matter where the votes come from."
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.