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At local polls, diversity guides Obama's triumph

Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 12:21 AM

President Barack Obama's victory in Hillsborough County this week was foretold in 2008 — the year the county's growing racial and ethnic diversity affected the region politically.

On Tuesday, Obama carried nearly every precinct he won four years earlier when he ran against Sen. John McCain.

The map of precincts that went for Obama includes most of the city of Tampa, adjacent areas of the county to the east and west and rural communities in the east and south — all areas that saw strong growth in Hispanics, immigrants and racial minorities during the previous decade.

Minority turnout often is the key to a Democratic win in Hillsborough County, said former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.

Democrats outnumber Republicans countywide, but minority voters tend to turn out in greater numbers during presidential years compared to midterm elections, when state-level offices top the ballot, said Iorio, a Democrat.

"When (minorities) come out in large numbers, as they did yesterday and in the early voting period, then Democratic candidates stand a very good chance of winning," Iorio said. "When they stay home, the Republican ticket stand a good chance of winning."

The president lost to GOP challenger Mitt Romney in a handful of Hillsborough precincts at the fringes of Obama's core of support. Those areas included West Shore and Rocky Point in Tampa and south Hillsborough. Davis Islands, which went for Obama in 2008, flipped for Romney this year.

Obama's support among Hillsborough voters closely mirrored the national results, with the president winning more than 90 percent of the vote in predominantly black communities like East Tampa and Palm River-Clair Mel. He won 75 percent or more in Hispanic enclaves like Wimauma and Ruskin.

He also won majorities in west Hillsborough communities like Egypt Lake and Town 'N Country, where Hispanics and other immigrants make up a large part of the population.

Neighborhoods that tend to be younger and have more female residents than the city as a whole — Seminole Heights and the area near the University of South Florida, for example — went for Obama as strongly as predominantly Hispanic areas.

Where the population is older, whiter and wealthier than average — in large chunks of east and northwest Hillsborough — the vote swung toward Romney much the way it did across the country as a whole.

That wasn't enough to overcome Obama's surge, however.

"I'm kind of shell-shocked," said Republican state committeeman Bill "Hoe" Brown.

"The whole I-4 corridor, we lost the whole thing," Brown said. "We got whipped in Hillsborough and Pinellas. We thought we were very close and that we would win those."

Brown said Obama's early voting drive — focused on minority and young voters this time and in 2008 — nailed the GOP's coffin shut in Florida.

"We didn't lose the race in the last week or the last two weeks. This was lost three months ago," Brown said.

Iorio and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, also a Democrat, agreed the president's enormous get-out-the-vote effort helped secure his victory in Hillsborough this year. That effort was an outgrowth of the Obama campaign's advantage in numbers-crunching and data-mining, Iorio said.

"We have entered into an era of extreme technology, and it's being used to target voters in new and different ways," Iorio said.

Still, in a county where Hispanics have grown from 15 percent of the population to 25 percent in a decade, demographics appear to be key to Hillsborough's political destiny.

Nowhere was that more apparent than in a comparison of vote tallies in New Tampa and the wealthier enclaves of South Tampa. The two city neighborhoods are nearly identical in population numbers and income but very different in racial mix and political leaning.

The well-heeled South Tampa neighborhoods voted almost exclusively for Romney, while New Tampa went for Obama.

Scott Paine, a University of Tampa communications and political science professor, said the difference can be found in New Tampa's younger and more diverse residents.

"One of the things that drives New Tampa today is its association with (the University of South Florida) and the medical research complex there," said Paine, a former city council member and New Tampa resident.

"You have up here places that are certainly the economic rival of the best neighborhoods of South Tampa," Paine said, "but that are also relatively well-educated, younger intellectuals motivated by innovation and change."

The 2010 census showed strong growth in New Tampa among Asians, with Indian and Chinese residents in the lead.

Paine noted that his Catholic parish, St. Mark the Evangelist, is the most diverse parish in Hillsborough County. And his neighbors include Latinos, Filipinos, Indians and people of white, European derivation.

Paine said it's too soon to know if the county's growing diversity will make it a bastion for Democrats in the years to come. But the next round of elections for the Republican-dominated county commission could make the case, he said.

"If the county commission starts to change, a reasonable explanation for such a shift, if it exists, would be the diversification on ethnic grounds."

kwiatrowski@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7871 Twitter: kevinw_trib