As it reflects the nation’s deeply divided mood, on Nov. 3 one of the largest counties in the Sunshine State just might pick the presidential winner.
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (AP) — As the campaign enters its final two weeks, Florida has again emerged as a critical state, and Pinellas, one of the largest counties in the state, is one of those places likely to track the final outcome.
“It is certainly a barometer of the broader trends,” said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida. “It’s a dynamic county, a good place to be watching the returns.”
Democrat Barack Obama won the county twice, but then voters turned to Republican Donald Trump, by a mere 5,500 votes, and Pinellas was the largest of only four counties in the state to switch from Obama to Trump.
“It shifted further to the right than the state as a whole did,” said political analyst Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia.
Or did it? In 2018, Pinellas voted for Democrats Andrew Gillum for governor and Bill Nelson for senate. Both lost.
Three Regions in One
Part of the reason it’s so hard to capture the mood of the electorate here is because it’s really three distinct regions in one.
Pinellas is a peninsula, sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, and is the most densely populated county in the state. There are just over 713,000 registered voters, with slightly more Democrats registered than Republicans. No Party Affiliation voters come in a close third.
Its largest city —St. Petersburg— is in the south. It’s home to a vibrant and historic Black community, one that’s traditionally voted for Democrats. In recent years, the city has also become something of a hipster haven, with a proliferation of breweries, indie street markets selling kombucha and younger folks moving to modern condos located in the picturesque downtown.
In mid-county, there’s sprawl and suburban families. Many commute to either St. Petersburg or across the bay to Tampa. They’re concerned about taxes, health care and schools.
The northern part of the county is no less crowded, and there are lots of families there, too. But there are also large communities of older voters, and they tend to be more conservative and worried about issues like Social Security.
And to the west are a string of barrier island communities and sugar sand beaches. Those voters lean wealthy and conservative.
“The only segment of that area that’s truly up for grabs is the central core,” said Darryl Paulson, a professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Hit Hard by the Pandemic
The pandemic —and its associated economic implications— is probably the top issue of most voters this year, especially among Democrats, who hold a slight advantage in terms of registered voters, Paulson said. “Pinellas has been hit harder by the virus than other counties in other states,” he said. “Democrats are keeping focus on that issue.”
There’s one thing everyone can agree on: Keep an eye on Pinellas on election night because it just might pick the presidential winner as it reflects the nation’s deeply divided mood.