New poll shows Duval's political complexity

A recently released poll of Duval County voters reveals support for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, and the proposed one cent sales tax increase supporting Duval County Public Schools – and a mixed bag for Mayor Lenny Curry. What does this mean for Jacksonville's political future in November 2020 and beyond?

#Bluval rising?

St. Pete Polls’ new poll of 749 active voters in Duval County is telling: the county may be experiencing a blue shift in terms of presidential elections, and support for the proposed sales tax increase shows that voters may be less averse to taxes than is sometimes assumed. Meanwhile, a Republican governor who lost the county two years ago enjoys favorable ratings, and Mayor Lenny Curry has a mixed-but-not-entirely-negative reception. What exactly is going on?

Joe Biden led Republican president Donald Trump 48.1% to 46.6%. Only 3.8% of respondents were undecided, with the last 1.4% backing third party candidates. Biden’s lead is within the poll’s margin of error, but comes as no surprise. Despite a historical reputation for strong Republican leanings – no Democrat has carried the county since 1976 – demographic shifts have been pushing the county blueward for the last 12 years. In the 2016 Presidential election, Hillary Clinton came within 7,000 votes of Trump. In 2018, Duval voters went for Democrats in three of the five statewide elections, including, for the first time since 1986, for gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.

In 2018, Duval County swung for Andrew Gillum, the first time the state had gone for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since 1986. Courtesy of Wikemedia.

This change is due to two related demographic trends. First, the “white flight” phenomenon has brought thousands of core Republican voters out of Duval County and into the surrounding bedroom suburbs. Second, due to this outflow as well as continued strong growth from younger and non-white residents - groups that lean Democratic - the county has become more diverse by the year. All year, pollsters have pondered whether 2020 will be the year that Duval finally breaks for a Democratic candidate. The St. Pete poll suggests that it very well could be.

Also polled was whether voters supported the proposed one cent sales tax increase for school maintenance. 56.5% of respondents said they planned to vote for the increase, with 31.3% against and 12.2% undecided. Again, this relatively high level of support may be a factor of Duval’s increasing Democratic lean.

Red’s not dead

Democrats shouldn’t take the upswing for granted, however. The poll also found encouraging signs of support for two Republican politicians.The poll found that Governor Ron DeSantis had a 51.3%. 40.9% of voters disapproved of the job he’s doing, with 7.8% unsure. This represents an increase in support for DeSantis, who lost Duval County to Andrew Gillum in the 2018 election.

The findings were less favorable for Mayor Lenny Curry, but it wasn’t all bad news. Curry’s approval rating was 42.6%, lower than the 45% approval rating he received in a June poll from the University of North Florida. Just last year, 57.6% of voters elected Curry to his second term. But Curry’s unfavorable rating of 38.8% was also lower than the June poll’s finding of 49%, putting his approval above water.

This suggests that Republican politicians can still perform well among Jacksonville voters. This jives with the results of the 2018 elections in which Republicans continued to dominate the local and state elections. This is likely due in no small part to Republicans’ substantial financial and organizational advantage, not to mention the impact of gerrymandering on district-based elections.

Indeed, even the school tax polls may not represent much of a change. In fact, Duval voters have supported sales tax increases twice before: the Better Jacksonville Plan in 2000, and Lenny Curry’s own sale tax increase to support his pension reform plan in 2016. Every mayor in the last 20 years has raised taxes at least once, or in the case of Alvin Brown, used a budget from the City Council that included a tax increase. Duval taxpayers may not be as averse to tax increases as their reputation indicates.

In short, the poll tracks shows the complexity of Jacksonville elections in this time of great change. Broadly, its findings track with the trends indicated by the results of the last several elections. Both sides can find something positive, but one thing is clear: Duval County is changing, likely forever.

Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at wdelaney@moderncities.com.