A convention in Florida during the heart of Hurricane season?! What was the RNC thinking? They were probably more focused on demographics and voting trends than winds patterns, and politically speaking, it’s actually not hard to see why holding a convention in Tampa was appealing enough to offset the risks. The Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area has ascended to preeminence in Florida’s presidential politics: It’s now the swing state’s last real swing region.
It wasn’t always like this. Throughout the Bush years, the vaunted I-4 corridor dominated discussions of Florida politics. But a growing Latino population and Democratic gains among that critical group have combined to move Orlando’s Orange County and neighboring Kissimmee’s Osceola County into the Democratic column. In 2012, Obama could easily win these traditional swing counties by a double-digit margin—even if he loses statewide. Republicans have balanced those gains by winning northern Florida by an even greater margin than they did before, leaving the state as close as ever
But with Orlando drifting into the Democratic-column, the truncated western half of the I-4 corridor—better known as Tampa Bay—remains as the state’s last true swing region. If Romney flips any Florida county, it will probably be Flagler County (Palm Coast), a relatively small county along the Atlantic that Bush won in 2004. Jefferson and Monroe Counties voted for Obama by a narrow margin 2008, but they're quite small and voted for Kerry and Gore by narrow margins as well. After that, Tampa’s Hillsborough County is the next most likely county to flip to Romney, and unlike the others, it's actually a big one.
Hillsborough, along with neighboring St. Petersburg’s Pinellas County, are the only two large, metropolitan swing counties in Florida that could realistically flip between Romney and Obama. These two counties at the heart of the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area combine to hold nearly one million voters, and a candidate that carries both of these counties is very likely to prevail statewide. Over the last six presidential elections, Tampa’s Hillsborough County has closely followed the statewide results.
And it’s not hard to see why: Hillsborough County is a microcosm of the state as a whole, although it’s slightly better educated and more diverse, which perhaps explains why Obama did marginally better there in 2008 than he did across the rest of Florida.
The outlying counties in the Tampa media market are also unusually competitive. Two counties lying north of Tampa—Pasco and Hernando—are the only two counties to vote for Gore in 2000 but McCain in 2008. These two predominantly white working class but competitive counties combine to hold 300,000 voters, and I suspect that persuadable voters make up a larger share of these two counties than most others in the state. If the convention earns the GOP good coverage on the local news, it will serve them well throughout the greater Tampa area.
And although hurricanes certainly pose a risk anywhere in the coastal South during August, Tampa is relatively well protected from tropical cyclones. Most systems form in the eastern Atlantic off the coast of Africa and track toward the west, so while the eastern coast of Florida is vulnerable to a direct hit, the western coast of Florida is well positioned to avoid the worst impacts. Like Isaac, some systems track out of the Caribbean into the Gulf of Mexico, but most head to the northwest which tends to take them toward the northern Gulf Coast, rather than the west coast of the Florida Peninsula.
Was Tampa worth the risk? It’s unclear just how much hosting a convention helps a given party in a target city. But if it helps at all, the GOP’s decision to place their convention in the most competitive region of a swing state that holds a veto over any Republican’s chances of winning the presidency was a wise move.