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'We don't have landslides in Florida': The fate of a key swing state may be in the hands of voters from this county

Danielle Wade was undecided minutes before she stepped into a suburban early voting site north of Jacksonville.

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Dan Merica
, CNN Photographs by Will Lanzoni, CNN
CNN — Danielle Wade was undecided minutes before she stepped into a suburban early voting site north of Jacksonville.

Wade, along with her husband, Adam, had voted for Donald Trump in 2016. But while he had decided to stick with the President, she, a lifelong Republican who was pregnant with her second child, had drifted away. The reason was simple: Trump himself.

"Quite frankly, I am just over Trump's antics," Danielle Wade said as she helped load her 2-year old son, Billy, into a stroller. "I am over the ignorance and the arrogance."

Looking at her husband, she added, "I tell him every day ... if I have to listen to (Trump) on television for one more minute, I am going to jump out a window."

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Wade represents a key dynamic playing out in communities across the country, including Duval: Suburban women, some of whom voted for the President four years ago, are backing away from him, turned off primarily by his rhetoric. But in Duval, where the vast majority of registered Democrats are Black, another political trend is at play: Four years after African American turnout was significantly depressed, Democrats are pouring significant resources into righting those wrongs.

The confluence of those two factors has turned Duval County, which is made up almost entirely of Jacksonville, into the largest swing county in the largest swing state.

And while Democrats and Republicans here agree on little, both Dean Black, chair of the county's Republican Party, and Daniel Henry, chair of its Democratic Party, agree that what happens in Duval County could tilt the rest of the state. A string of polls have found that the race between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden in Florida is remarkably close, with most surveys falling within the margin or error.

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"There is an argument to be made it may be the single most important county in the single most important state in the most important election in a century," said Black.

Duval last voted for a Democratic president in 1976, when fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter carried the county overwhelmingly. Since then, however, Duval has become a Republican stronghold within the perennial swing state, in large part because of voters like Mavis Barnes.

"He has my future in his hands," Barnes, an administrative assistant at a local school, said after voting for Trump. "The future of the United States of America depends on it."

But Democrats in the county are hopeful, especially because of growing bitterness over the President. Black turnout in the county was down in 2016, an issue every operative in the area knows they have to address. But the party has increased its voter registration advantage over the last four years, heading into Election Day with 6% more registered Democrats than Republicans in Duval.

The margins in Duval are critical. If Democrats are able to win the county, they will deny Republicans voters they once relied on in the President's adopted home state and a place he can't afford to lose in November.

In that scenario, it is the feelings of once-reliable Republican voters like Wade that could be determinative.

"I don't believe he will be the cure-all," she said after voting for Biden, the first Democrat she had ever backed in her 35-year-long life. "But the country needs some relief."

'I saw what I have to lose'

Trump won Duval County by 1.5 percentage points in 2016, a margin that was substantially narrower than those of past Republican nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain.

Though Democrats saw silver linings in that slim margin, there were also fears about how Black voters in the county -- where 65% of registered Democrats are African American, according to the party -- did not turn out for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee that year.

"In the 2016 election, the African American vote didn't perform as it did for Barack Obama when he was running for election and reelection," said Henry, the county's Democratic chair. "And I think that was a key element as to why we didn't get over the finish line."

That depressed turnout, along with a perceived Trump weakness in the county, led to numerous groups outside Democratic organizations to pour countless hours of work into organizing Black voters in the county ahead of the 2018 election.

And those efforts paid off: For the first time in more than 30 years, Democrats carried Duval County with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum atop the ticket. Although Gillum narrowly lost the election to Ron DeSantis and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried would be the only statewide Democrat to win in 2018, the election provided Democrats in Duval County with proof that it is possible to turn the county blue with a concerted focus on Black voters.

Clarence Corbin is one of those voters.

Corbin, who moved to Jacksonville two years ago after a career as a truck driver in New Jersey, didn't vote in 2016, but eagerly lined up at an early voting location days before the 2020 election to cast a vote for Biden.

While Corbin said he feels like Biden "makes more sense" than Trump, his biggest selling point was that he was running against Trump, who Corbin called a "racist."

"I wouldn't vote for Donald Trump. Anyone could run against him and they would get my vote," he said. "I would vote for Donald Duck. I would vote for anyone other than Donald Trump. I just want Trump out."

This anti-Trump sentiment has led groups like the Equal Ground Education Fund, led by Jasmine Burney-Clark, to focus on getting as many Black voters to the polls as possible in places like Duval. A key reason for that interest, said Burney-Clark, is Biden running mate Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to be on a major party's presidential ticket.

"Biden needed a Black woman on this ticket in order to be seen as a formidable candidate for Black folks," she said. "We only saw an older White guy who we connected to politics yesteryear and then we saw a Black woman who identified with our issues."

Even so, antipathy for Trump appeared to be the motivating factor for the vast majority of Black voters CNN spoke with outside early voting sites in Duval County.

Franlynn Robinson said she soured on Trump when she heard him say on the "Access Hollywood" tape in 2016 that he could sexually assault women. She backed Clinton and was disappointed when the Democrat didn't win. Still, she thinks four years of Trump have pushed even more Democrats to get out and vote.

"You can let your voice speak for you. And more people are being encouraged, maybe I can do something, let me get off my ass and go out there and try," said Robinson. "Even if it does or does not work, you did your part."

Trump's campaign, looking at polls that show historic opposition to Trump among Black women like Robinson, is hopeful that the President can win between 20% and 25% of Black men in the November election.

Speaking to Black voters in Duval, however, there were few signs those hopes would come true.

"Candidate Trump said to the African American people, 'What do you have to lose?' " said Nathaniel Evans, an Air Force veteran, recalling a common phrase from the President's 2016 campaign. "You have shown me for the last four years what you are about. I saw what I have to lose."

'We don't have landslides in Florida'

Despite the growing excitement for turning Duval County blue, support for Trump continues to run deep with men like Daryl Shook, working one full-time job and one-part time job and still finding time to volunteer for the Trump campaign.

"God put this President where he is at," said Shook, who stood outside an early voting site with a Trump sign in hand, waving it to cars driving by. Shook voted for Trump in 2016 but wasn't sold on him until early in his presidency. "Within one month of his presidency, I could not wait to vote for him again."

But Shook, an equipment operator in Jacksonville, is on the front lines of the division splitting the county and sees excitement for both parties. After a younger man voted, he pulled up next to Shook and shouted, "F*** Trump."

"That right there," Shook said, "is an example of where our country is going."

Shook represents one of the hundreds of volunteers who Black, the chair of the Duval County Republican Party, is relying on ahead of the November election.

Black does worry about the voter registration deficit his party faces -- "Anytime we have an election as close as this one, I'm not getting a lot of sleep," he said -- but believes it is the party's ground game that will keep the county red in November.

Democrats in the county, citing the coronavirus pandemic, are not knocking on doors, instead just dropping literature at doorsteps, while Republicans, according to Black, are knocking on thousands of doors every week.

"If Duval County is red again, it's the ground game," Black said, noting that most campaigns believe a good ground game can provide one side a 3% boost in the final vote. "There is no rule of thumb for what it gets you if you build a ground game and your opponent doesn't show up."

Black concluded: "This is Florida. We don't have landslides in Florida. If it doesn't go to the Supreme Court, that is a landslide. ... It is a turnout election."

Even still, there are signs of slippage for the President in Duval County.

Jeannie Lang, who backed Trump four years ago, said she had decided not to vote for either major party nominee four years later.

"My vote in 2016 was for the lesser of two evils and he is not working out," she said. "He is a circus. President Trump is a circus, and I am not going to vote for him again."

Her husband, Kenneth Tarrant, who wrote in nobody, put a finer point on it: "The entire presidency has been nothing more than a tabloid. E News nightly."

The bigger issue for Duval Republicans, however, is people like Michael Larsen, the prototypical business-minded voter who, after years of backing Republicans, has left the party because of Trump.

"I am a Republican without a home, sort of a political nomad," said Larsen, a commercial insurance broker who lives east of Jacksonville. Larsen soured on Trump during the 2016 campaign when the then-candidate attacked Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents whose son had died while serving in Iraq. But he has seen, over time, how being a Trump supporter in Duval County means being "bold" about who you support.

"It's sort of this boast that you are one thing or another," he said.

Larsen said he plans for vote for Biden this election, because he believes the former vice president is "levelheaded," but also because he hopes losing in places like Duval will be cleansing for the Republican Party.

"I think the very best thing for the Republican Party is for Biden to win," Larsen said, "and for there to be a reckoning in the party."

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