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Polk County And The I-4 Corridor Voters

Right in the middle of the I-4 corridor sits Polk County -- rural and conservative and largely Republican. But changing demographics could mean a close election there for President.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump got an enthusiastic reception when he campaigned in Lakeland recently, and he probably noticed that Polk County -- to coin a phrase --  is really "huge". It's about the size of Delaware, and for the past 20 years, the Republican party has dominated the political scene there.

One of the politicians stumping at the Trump rally in Lakeland was native son Dennis Ross,  U.S. congressman for District 15, which includes the western part of Polk County.  

"It is so good to be back home in Lakeland," Ross told the crowd, "a place where my wife and I were born and raised, and where I was elected six years ago to the United States Congress to make change, and I'll be damned if I'm going to concede this White House to the Democratic Party."

Ross played to the crowd -- touching on some popular Polk County  activities to show he knew his audience -- and warning of a Supreme court under a Clinton presidency.

 "Those of us who are law abiding, card carryin',  concealed weapon gun owners, hunters, sportsmen, fishermen, all of us who enjoy the great outdoors," Ross said, "will now have a liberal court to erode and eviscerate the second amendment like we've never seen"

There are plenty of opportunities for hunting and fishing in Polk, and a lot of land in the county is still devoted to agriculture and citrus. Phosphate mining has been a major industry here for generations.  It's not a wealthy county. The median income is several thousand dollars lower than the state average, while the poverty rate is several points higher.  

Polk is represented in the state legislature by conservative Republicans Sen. Kelli Stargel and Rep. Neil Combee. But until the mid-90s, Polk was a Democratic party bastion, say longtime political observers like Bill Rufty, the former political editor at The Ledger newspaper.

Rufty says the Democratic Party controlled Polk County for more than a century. Polk sent three Democratic governors to Tallahassee, though the next likely candidate from Polk, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, is a Republican.  So what happened? Democrats didn't know how to operate as the minority party, Rufty says, and couldn't get their act together.

"They were resting on their laurels," he said, "plus the fact that there was no control over who might run."

Lately though, Rufty says the Democrats are starting to run better candidates, and they're starting to get organized. Organization, Rufty feels, is just as important as ideology when it comes to getting votes.

Also helping the Democrats in Polk  is the influx of Puerto Ricans into Osceola County, which is spilling into eastern Polk County as well. There are actually more registered Democrats than Republicans on the voter rolls.

"It will be interesting to see now whether or nor the demographics have changed enough that Secretary Clinton will be able to win Polk County," Rufty says. "In my own mind, based on the strong conservatism in the south portion of the county and the west portion of the county, I don't think she will be able to do that."

But it will be close, Rufty says. And there may be enough Democratic votes in Polk County to help swing the I-4 corridor, and thus swing the state.

Robin Sussingham was Senior Editor at WUSF until September 2020.
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