Florida looming larger as presidential race tightens, final debate nears

The Road to the White House

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Jill Jones proudly displays the gold American flag pin she won after making her 8,000th call for Republican Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

Strictly speaking, she didn't make the call herself. A computer does that for her, and her handset display lets her know when a targeted voter picks up. She has become so adept through months of volunteering in a second-floor suite of offices in a local Romney headquarters in Fort Lauderdale that she has two handsets in front of her.

Some days the programmed numbers seek older voters, other days Jewish voters or some other targeted voter group. Lots of people don't answer, so she's able to juggle the calls that get through on one or the other line.

"I'm here six days a week,'' she said, surrounded by about a dozen fellow partisans, most making calls in English, some in Spanish. "Anything I do I tend to overdo ... it's a healthy addiction.''

A few miles away, LaCuyetunia Todd sits in a volunteer center for President Barack Obama on Sistrunk Boulevard. The street and surrounding neighborhood are named for James Sistrunk, one of the first African-American doctors in Broward County. Just as she did four years ago, the retired dermatologist has been working for the Obama campaign for months.

Some days she's on the phone. On others, she canvasses her neighborhood. Voter registration was the top priority earlier. Now she and her volunteer colleagues are pushing absentee voting. A white calendar in the office is starred to mark the next phase of the Democratic ground game: Oct. 27 -- Early Voting Starts.

"No one dragged me here; this is something I wanted to do,'' she says with a smile, explaining that she's been an admirer of Mr. Obama since "I first heard his speech at that Kerry thing'' -- his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.

"I just thought there was something special about that man,'' she said. "As a black person, I was so proud. ... I look at all the crises he's had to deal with and the way he's handled them with such aplomb.''

In politics, Florida is the ultimate air war state, sprawling over eight media markets that suck up campaign dollars by the scores of millions.

But if the election is close, as polls suggest that it may be here, the ground games that these women exemplify could make the crucial difference at the margin in determining who gets its 29 electoral votes -- by far the largest prize of any swing state.

The campaign 'arms race'

The advertising barrages that dominate the airwaves are the moist visible, inescapable parts of the presidential campaigns.

The Sunlight Foundation reported that Orlando was the No. 2 market in the nation for television advertising last week, and West Palm Beach was No. 4. But for the last decades, the two parties have also been involved in an escalating arms race in retail campaigning.

The 2004 Bush campaign is credited with establishing the most extensive grass-roots effort that the state had ever seen, helping to propel President George W. Bush to a comfortable 52 percent to 47 percent lead here.

Mr. Obama's 2008 effort was still more sophisticated on the ground, as paid staffers and volunteers, local, from across the nation, and even abroad flooded the state, and helped give the Democrat a huge advantage in early voting and a foundation for his three-point win here.

The nucleus of that effort never left. Gearing up for November's contest, Obama for America has opened 103 offices across the state.

The Romney general election campaign got a much later start. It has fewer than half the field offices -- 47 -- but its leaders insist it has made up much of that ground

"I look at our numbers and see such a leap from 2008,'' said Tom Brandt, a spokesman for the GOP campaign here.

He noted that Republican absentee ballot requests are running well ahead of four years ago. Democrats counter that, for a variety of reasons, absentee balloting has been a traditional strength for Republicans while they have had the edge in early voting in presidential years. And they argue that the fact that they are closer to Republicans in absentee ballot requests this year -- 45 percent to 39 percent so far, according to state statistics -- shows they are better positioned even as early voting is about to kick off. Republicans dismiss that as spin, suggesting that many Democrats who voted in person early in the past are voting absentee this year. At this point, there's no way to tell which analysis will prove true.

It makes sense for the Democrats to switch their focus more to absentee voting this year, however, as the state's Republican governor and legislature, in a move seen as an effort to counter the Democratic advantage, pared the days of early voting from 15 to eight this year, including the final Sunday before election day.

In 2008, roughly half of Florida's voters cast their ballots before election day. Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida expert on the state's politics, said that this year, as much as 60 percent of Florida's votes could be cast before Nov. 6.

Recent polling suggests a narrow overall advantage for Mr. Romney in a state battered by the housing crisis and where the unemployment rate exceeds the national average.

The latest CNN survey, released Friday, showed the Republican with a one-point advantage over Mr. Obama, who had maintained a narrow lead through most of the summer and fall, until the first debate in Denver. A survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, taken after that debate, but before the second one in New York, showed Mr. Romney with an advantage of 51 percent to 44 percent, the largest margin found in any recent survey.

The poll included a series of questions testing the effect of the first debate, and it found that it at least temporarily stripped Mr. Obama of 4 percent of his prior support, while giving Mr. Romney a four-point net increase, half from previous Obama supporters and half from the undecided.

While more recent polls show a closer race, Brad Coker, Mason-Dixon's managing director, said he doubted that the effects of either the second debate in New York or tomorrow's final encounter just up the coast here would be enough to reverse Mr. Romney's momentum here.

"I kind of have this theory that once an incumbent falls behind, it's hard to get them back,'' he said.

Ron Sachs, a political and media consultant and a former aide to the state's last Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, agreed that the Romney forces appeared to have surged in a state that he described as still up for grabs.

"Absent a big stumble by either one in the last debate, I wouldn't be surprised to see [a Romney win],'' he said. "Enthusiasm for President Obama is not the same as when he was just a candidate. Once you're a leader, it's a top tough job. A little bit of the shine comes off.''

Ms. MacManus, the co-author of "Politics in Florida,'' said that here as in other states, the election was likely to turn on the extent to which Mr. Obama could rekindle the intensity of his supporters here, particularly among young and minority voters.

"My sense at the moment is that it's going to depend on what the age makeup is of those who actually show up,'' she said. "Older voters lean more Republican. Obama's strongest support is among the youngest cohort.

"The ground game for Mr. Obama in Florida has to focus on younger voters and minority voters. Consequently, my read is that if the age makeup ... is close to what it was in '08, Obama wins. If not, Romney wins.''

More than a quarter of the state's voters are Hispanic or African-American.

And she said that the tsunami of commercials here could end up, for both sides, as a barrier for the grass-roots, get-out-the-vote efforts.

"The negative ad saturation in our state will definitely tamp down turnout; that's a fear of both parties,'' she said.

Democrats to voters: show up

Lance deHaven-Smith, another prominent analyst of state politics, said turnout suppression should be a particular worry for the Democrats.

"They need a big turnout,'' he said of the Obama forces. "When you see the turnout going down in Florida, it's Democrats not going to the polls.''

That's a factor across the state, but nowhere is it more important than in the I-4 corridor that extends from Tampa Bay to Orlando. Mr. deHaven- Smith is the author of "The Battle for Florida,'' a chronicle of the epic struggle between Mr. Bush and former Vice President Al Gore for the state's electoral votes in 2000. He said that the controversy over that court battle obscured another significant turning point for the state politics in that election.

Before, 2000, he explained, to capture the state, Democrats needed to do well among the conservatives in the state's panhandle and Jacksonville regions, geographically the most northern but culturally the most southern part of the state.

In 2000, Mr. Bush prevailed in that northern tier, but Mr. Gore was able to hold him to a draw by becoming the first Democrat in decades to win Orange County, the home of Orlando. Mr. Gore won narrowly there; in 2008, Mr. Obama had a comfortable margin in the county.

"The reason [Mr. Gore won] there is that there had been an influx of Puerto Ricans into the Orlando area,'' he said. "As U.S. citizens, they're able to vote as soon as they arrive,'' he said. "Watch Orange County.''

While the state's Hispanic population is varied, the Puerto Rican voters of central Florida tend to counter the more conservative Cuban voters of the Miami region. The Republican campaign here has worked to cut into the Democratic appeal with that growing constituency with appearances by Puerto Rico's Republican Gov. Luis Fortuno, who was also a speaker at the GOP's August convention in Tampa.

That convention was one example of how the state has already had such an outsized influence in this political cycle. Its insistence, against the dictates of the national party, on elbowing its way forward in the primary calendar forced Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to move their nominating contests earlier into the winter. Mr. Romney's big spending win here effectively ended the campaigns of Newt Gingrich and all of his GOP rivals except former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

The final debate brings that much more intensity to the largest battleground state. Now, as in 2000, its votes could determine the election as, without its 29 electoral votes, it's tough to see how the surging Romney campaign could assemble an electoral college majority.

Vice President Joe Biden underscored that point as he visited another Obama campaign office in Orlando Saturday.

"We wanted to come to the epicenter of the epicenter, man,'' he told a roomful of volunteers, according to the pool report of the stop. "Florida, you guys produce; we win Florida, this is all history, man.''

electionspresident - politico

James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com First Published October 21, 2012 4:00 AM


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