The 'fight for Florida' is happening in this once-conservative stronghold

Melissa Gomez
·10 min read
ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 19: Democratic U.S. Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during an early voting mobilization event at the Central Florida Fairgrounds on October 19, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. President Donald Trump won Florida in the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)
Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris stumps in Orlando, Fla., on the state's first day of early voting in October. Harris also visited Jacksonville in Duval County, an unlikely battleground in conservative north Florida. (Octavio Jones / Getty Images)

Davon Davis' mother had reminded him constantly about voting. So on a recent Sunday the 20-year-old cast his first-ever ballot for president before dishing up wings and fries to voters at a Souls to the Polls event.

Two issues were key to Davis, a Jacksonville native who is starting college in January: the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice. President Trump has failed at both, he said.

“When he got coronavirus, he’s telling people, ‘Oh, don't worry about it, it’s not all that bad,'" said Davis, who added that he was angry because his own family members are vulnerable. "Not everybody has the money to pay for things if they do get sick.”

After he voted, Davis worked the Souls to Polls event to encourage Black residents of this Atlantic Coast city, the state's most populous, to vote early. His cousins and brothers, they'd all already cast their ballots, he said.

"Wasn’t a better time than now to vote with all that’s going on in the world," he said. "It’s the perfect time."

Young voters like Davis have helped turn Jacksonville's Duval County into an unlikely battleground in a state crucial to the presidential election. Republicans have long counted on running up votes in the state's conservative north to compete with Democratic strongholds in south Florida, and the last time Duval County chose a Democrat for president was 1976, when voters went for Georgian Jimmy Carter.

Davon Davis, 20, stands near a Jacksonville, Fla., early voting center after casting a ballot for Joe Biden.
"Wasn't a better time than now to vote with all that's going on in the world," said Davon Davis, a 20-year-old native of Jacksonville, Fla., who said he voted for Democrat Joe Biden. (Melissa Gomez / Los Angeles Times)

But Duval's ruby red shine has dulled over the years. And if Democrats hold their lead with early votes, experts say, the county that both parties see as pivotal could flip.

Trump, who needs Florida to win reelection, won some surrounding counties by more than 50 points in 2016, but Duval was much closer. And in 2018, the county voted for a Democrat for governor for the first time in decades.

An "Obama coalition" of young white and Black voters and Latinos helped boost the candidacy of Andrew Gillum, the state’s first Black gubernatorial candidate for a major party, said Sharon Austin, a University of Florida political science professor. Black Americans make up about 30% of the county's population and 54% of its registered Democrats.

"Democratic candidates have a realistic chance in that county,” Austin said.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden's choice of California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate has helped his pitch to Black voters, she noted. Harris, the first Black woman on a major party ticket, came to Jacksonville on the first day of in-person early voting in October. "A lot of people in Duval, especially in the Black community, really like her,” Austin said.

Democrats in Duval have doubled their lead to 6 points over Republicans in voter registration since 2016, said Michael M. Binder, director of the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida. Of the 55% of active eligible voters who had cast their ballots as of Friday, Democrats held an early-vote lead of about 22,000.

“If the Black vote in Duval turns out, it’s not because Duval is special — it’s because Duval is reflective of the Black vote across the state and across the country,” Binder said.

More than 8.7 million Floridians had voted by Sunday morning, closing in on Florida's 9.6 million total 2016 count, according to U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida. By Friday, nearly 200,000 more Black voters had cast ballots than at the same time in the 2016 election, and that includes an increase in those under 29, said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of the BlackPAC. In previous elections, Black votes were left on the table in north Florida because of a lack of voter outreach. This year, voters are determined — "People are angry about what is happening in the country," she said.

Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic strategist, said views of the state's politics often discount Black voters in the north. "People's impressions of Florida are always wherever they've been," Schale said. "They think of Disney World, they think of African American voters, they think of Miami or Fort Lauderdale. And people forget, nearly 25% of registered African American voters in Florida live all in the I-10 corridor from Jacksonville to Pensacola."

Schale, who led Obama's 2008 campaign efforts in the state and runs a pro-Biden PAC, likes the way Duval is headed. On Tuesday, he wrote: “Unless something really goes south, Joe Biden is going to win Duuuuval.”

When Trump won the county in 2016 by only about 6,000 votes, Republicans noted it as unusual, said Dean Black, current chairman of the Duval GOP. Democrats Gillum and then-Sen. Bill Nelson went on to lose in their 2018 midterm elections, but the fact that both captured Duval came as a shock, Black said.

“In elections that are this close, every county in Florida is very important,” Black said in an interview from the party’s office in downtown Jacksonville. But Duval, he believes, will be pivotal. “The fact that Democrats have poured such a high level of resources into this county, year after year after year, they have made it a strategic focal point in the fight for Florida.”

Since Black became chairman at the end of 2018, the Republican Party opened several field offices, recruited more than 1,000 volunteers, and most recently knocked on 50,000 doors in a week. He described it as “an unprecedented ground game for Duval County" to compete with Democrats.

President Trump arrives for a rally Sept. 24 at Cecil Airport in Jacksonville, Fla.
President Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally at an airport in Jacksonville, Fla., in September. His campaign opened a Black Voices for Trump office, aiming to chip away at the Democratic base. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump campaign has also focused on the county. Jacksonville, led by GOP officials, was briefly scheduled to host the Republican National Convention until the coronavirus outbreak worsened in the state. Trump rallied in Jacksonville in late September, and his oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., was in town last month. The campaign also opened a Black Voices for Trump office in northern Jacksonville, aiming to chip away at the Democratic base.

On Thursday, a county judge who served as chairman of the vote-counting board, which reviews and decides which rejected ballots should count, resigned from the panel after the Florida Times-Union reported he donated several times to the president and had multiple Trump signs in his yard, violating judicial and canvassing board rules.

Closer to the coast in Duval, Trump signs and flags become more apparent in yards and on trucks and boats. Gabe and Maria Goodman went to the Beaches Branch Library on a Sunday afternoon to cast their votes for Trump. The Neptune Beach couple said they believe the president dealt with the pandemic as best he could and deserved another four years.

"I think he’s handled it better than any Democrat president could have thought of handling it,” Gabe said.

White, retired voters like the Goodmans helped deliver Trump the state in 2016. But the president is struggling with the group amid the pandemic.

Maria and Gabe Goodman, residents of Neptune Beach, Fla., cast their ballots for President Trump early.
Maria and Gabe Goodman, of Neptune Beach, Fla., cast their ballots for President Trump early. White, retired voters like the Goodmans helped deliver Trump the state in 2016. (Melissa Gomez / Los Angeles Times)

If there is one thing Republican leader Black and Daniel Henry, chairman of the Duval County Democratic Party, agree on, it's their county’s role in the election.

“Duval will decide who the next president of the United States will be,” Henry said. Jacksonville residents are, on average, younger than those in other metropolitan cities like Miami, and he believes young African American voters “will have a huge impact in this election.”

Nonpartisan groups like My Vote Project have ramped up efforts to increase turnout among Black voters. On Sundays leading up to election day, churches participated in Souls to the Polls events to turn out their congregations in Jacksonville.

In interviews with about a dozen Black voters in Jacksonville, all said they voted or planned to vote to get Trump out of office.

On a Saturday afternoon, soon after rapper Common appeared at a Free the Vote event, friends Justin Lane, 22, and Tre Hall, 23, walked over the nearby early polling site, where Lane cast his vote for Biden.

Friends Tre Hall, left, and Justin Lane, right, head to cast their ballots early.
Friends Tre Hall, left, and Justin Lane head to an early voting site after the rapper Common appeared at an event encouraging people to vote. "It's on us to make a change," said 22-year-old Lane, who voted for Joe Biden. (Melissa Gomez / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s on us to make a change,” he said, wearing his “I voted early!” sticker. “I have to show that as a young Black male, I understand that I am the future, and I do want to make a change for the better.”

After 2016, Hall said people at his church urged him and others to give Trump an opportunity to be a good president. “We gave him a chance for four years and he didn't really show me anything,” said Hall, who voted for Biden on Monday.

Biden’s favorability among young Black voters is higher than with white or Latino youths, according to the latest Harvard Youth poll of voters ages 18 to 29. Justin Tseng, chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project, which conducted the poll in September and October, said young Black Americans are more motivated than young people on average, second to white voters.

“Young Black Americans see 2020 as a chance to make an impact in the world and shape it for their own good … and move America toward justice and equality,” Tseng said.

Jacksonville, like many places in the South, has been shaped by race and racism. It is home to the state’s first historically Black college. Edward Waters College was founded in 1866 after the end of the Civil War to serve newly emancipated African Americans. Sixty years ago, a white mob attacked Black civil rights activists with ax handles, an event known as “Ax Handle Saturday.”

In an area once known as Durkeeville, where many African Americans lived and worked during segregation, local artists have turned a nearly block-long warehouse into a giant mural. Portraits of Black residents killed by gun violence run along one side, those of local activists cover another. A third side spells out, in huge block letters, "Black Votes Matter."

The murals are part of Color Jax Blue, a project aiming to increase Black voter turnout. Shawana Brooks, the artist and curator who launched the project, has partnered with a food bank to offer free food and shuttle rides to an early voting site.

Brooks said her choice of blue for the mural backgrounds draws on the American flag and its symbolism of justice. It is an unfulfilled promise for Black Americans, she said, but the murals serve as a reminder for their community to empower themselves by voting.

"We wanted this to not only go up and be present for this time now, but thinking of five years later,” Brooks said, standing before the towering images. Pedestrians waved to the artists gathered with her; passing drivers honked greetings. “Black votes don’t just matter because it’s a national election. They matter because it's a sense of nationalism that we have to make sure that we’re taken care of.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.