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Opinion With Jacksonville canceled, can Trump win Florida?

Hundreds of boats idle on the St. Johns River during a June 14 in Jacksonville, Fla., celebrating President Trump's birthday. (Will Dickey--/AP)

Daniel Evans teaches journalism at Florida International University.

Jacksonville stretches on forever. It is Florida’s largest city; in fact, it is the largest city by area in the Lower 48. (Yes, the city “where Florida starts” is larger than the city of Los Angeles.) Donald Trump did better in Jacksonville in 2016 than in all but two metropolitan areas in the entire United States.

That helps explain why Trump folded his tent in Charlotte last month and was trying to set it up again quickly in Jacksonville, before covid-19 forced him to cancel his plans. But Jacksonville’s size was only part of the reason Trump wanted to have his convention there. The other was need: Polls suggest he is running behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden by seven points in Florida, and rolling up a big margin in Jacksonville is usually the way Republicans build a victory in the Sunshine State.

Unlike Charlotte, a banking town, Jacksonville’s money comes from its burly, journeyman industries — construction materials, paper-making and automotive parts. It has long leaned Republican, and GOP hopefuls have tried for years to rack up big margins there to fight Democratic advantages elsewhere in the state. Local authorities were certainly behind the move; all of the elected officials for Duval County, where Jacksonville is located, are Republican. Even the public defender.

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Trump now needs to find some other way to shore up his base in Northeast Florida if he hopes to win the state. It won’t be easy: Jacksonville has been slipping out of Republican control for years. George W. Bush prevailed over John Kerry in 2004 in part by getting 62,000 more votes in Duval County. In 2012, Mitt Romney’s countywide edge over Barack Obama was 15,000 votes. In 2016, Trump’s margin was 6,000 votes. Two years later, Republicans Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott both lost the county.

Jacksonville’s demographics tell the story. The city will likely become a majority-minority town when the new census figures arrive. The most recently available count, from 2019, show how close the tipping point is: Jacksonville is 31 percent black, about 10 percent Latino and 5 percent Asian American. It is also a young city, with about a quarter of its population between the ages of 18 and 34 and a median age of about 36, nearly six years younger than the state as a whole. It no longer feels like Trump country.

This fast-changing population has hardly been oblivious to the news of late. Dozens of Black Lives Matter protests have been held throughout traditionally white and conservative Northeastern Florida, including one last week next door in Clay County — a place that voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of 70 to 26 percent.

Nor was the convention shaping up to be the helpful, local excitement-builder that GOP officials had imagined it could be. Trump was scheduled to deliver his acceptance speech on the anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday. On Aug. 27, 1960, Ku Klux Klan members and others beat black Floridians who were protesting racism during a lunch counter sit-in. Police stood by while the mob chased the protesters through the streets with baseball bats and ax handles, joining in the beatings when some began to fight back. It was an awkward time and place for a triumphant political speech — certainly not the sort of thing that would appeal to the swing voters Trump needs.

This Aug. 27, people are scheduled to gather at Hemming Park — across the street from where that Woolworth’s counter used to be, and about a mile from where Trump was to speak. Canceling the convention avoids what could have been a bad day for everyone concerned. “The most egregious thing was that Trump’s coronation would have been happening on the 60th anniversary of one of the ugliest and shameful days in the city’s history,” said local writer Tim Gilmore. The canceled convention, he added, was the logical anticlimax.

In fact, it had been widely assumed in Florida that Jacksonville’s moment in the political spotlight would not last. The idea of bringing thousands of people, from all over the country, to any Florida city was becoming more absurd with each passing week. The total number of cases in Florida has now exceeded 400,000 — and the state has recorded more than 5,700 deaths. Duval County itself has had nearly 19,000 cases, and its positivity rate currently hovers around 10 percent.

Now the GOP convention, real or virtual, moves on, perhaps to unfold elsewhere. Jacksonville will keep growing. The city will keep changing. And Trump must still find a way to win the Sunshine State.

Read more:

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Henry Olsen: Good on Trump for canceling his convention. Now it’s time for the hard part.

Jennifer Rubin: The Republican convention debacle is vintage Trump

Erin Marcus: I’m a doctor in Miami. Here’s how I know Florida’s covid-19 outbreak won’t improve any time soon.

Xinyan Yu: I’m from Wuhan. I got covid-19 — in Florida.

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