Duval County poised to be key battleground in 2020 election

Once-red county has grown more purple in recent years, expert says

Once-red county has grown more purple in recent years, expert says

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Political experts say it’s no fluke: the once-red Duval County has become more purple, a development that could give the county a key role to play in the 2020 general election.

Duval County has historically turned red with voters turning out for Republican candidates year after year. That much was true in 2012 when Mitt Romney scored more votes than President Barack Obama and once again in 2016 with now-President Donald Trump beating Hillary Clinton.

That voting trend has shifted in recent years, particularly in the 2018 U.S. Senate race when Democrat Bill Nelson outpaced Republican Rick Scott in the county, despite Nelson’s loss statewide. In that year’s gubernatorial race, voters delivered Duval County for Democrat Andrew Gillum in his unsuccessful bid against Ron DeSantis, who went on to become the governor of Florida.

“Duval County is trending purple and it’s become very much a purple county,” News4Jax Political Analyst Rick Mullaney said. “People tend to think of Duval County as red because it’s surrounded by red counties when you look at Nassau, when you look at Clay County. But Duval County itself, if you look historically at the voting, has become purple. It is clearly in play as a battleground county.”

Mullaney, the director of Jacksonville University’s Public Policy Institute, said Duval County is something of an outlier among Florida’s major metropolitan areas. While voters in other major cities such as Miami, Orlando and Tampa have tended to skew blue, he said voters in Jacksonville have typically gone red. But, as shown in more recent elections, that’s no longer a lock.

“Those margins are changing,” Mullaney said. “Gov. (Mitt) Romney won by only 15,000 votes. And you can see in 2011 (2018) when Bill Nelson actually had more votes than Rick Scott and (in 2018) when Andrew Gillum had more votes than Gov. DeSantis. The trendlines suggest that Duval County has become purple, that it is in play and it may become like the rest of the state – meaning that in the urban areas, it could very well go Democrat.”

It’s worth noting that as recently as 2004, Republicans held a firm grip on Duval. That year saw Republicans collect over 220,000 votes in the presidential race, compared to 158,000 for Democrats. In the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, however, Democrats closed that gap. Duval was decided by roughly 8,000 and 15,000 votes, respectively, in those elections.

The main reason? Voter turnout.

Mullaney explains that Duval County is unique, with the largest Black voting population by percentage, among the state’s larger counties, at nearly 30 percent.

"And in Duval County, historically some of that was about turnout,” Mullaney said. “That’s why in 2008 and 2012 with Barack Obama, you saw those turnouts.”

And turnout will once again be an influential factor in the 2020 election, Mullaney said. He said it’s easy to see Duval as a red county, especially because of the leanings of surrounding counties such as Nassau and Clay. Or because local officials, from Jacksonville’s mayor to the sheriff, are Republican. Yet those were local races, which tend to see far fewer voters than higher profile elections.

“Those have been some low turnout elections,” he said. “When you get to the governor’s race, the U.S. Senate and presidential races, the bigger the turnout, you see that begin to change. And that’s what happened in 2016 in the presidential race and that’s what happened in 2018 with the U.S. Senate and with the governor. So what about this year? It looks like it’s going to be a very, very big turnout. That potentially is good news for Joe Biden when it comes to Duval County.”

About the Author:

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.