Why the 2012 Election Could All Come Down to Florida
Naples, Florida — It's a sunny Saturday in Cambier Park, the heart of Naples, on Florida's west coast, and local tea party activists are doing something unusual: They're holding a Thanksgiving food drive to benefit a local homeless shelter and food pantry.
The red-meat rhetoric is on hold. American flags abound amid swaying palm trees. "Gratitude not attitude," a sign says. That holiday spirit is what drew in Adam Sandy, who had never attended a tea party event before.
"I felt the tea party was too polarizing," says Mr. Sandy, who came with his tea partyer brother and a shopping bag full of food to donate. "It's good they're doing something positive."
IN PICTURES: Florida and the presidential election
Sandy is probably a rarity among the roughly 200 people here – an Obama voter in 2008. He says, even as a registered Republican, he could still vote to reelect President Obama next year. But for now, he likes libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas in the Florida Republican primary on Jan. 31. He supported Mr. Obama in 2008 because of his "message of unity" and his promise of economic solutions, but now he thinks "maybe we don't need government to create jobs."
And while Sandy is part of a cohort that leans Democratic – he's young (age 26) and college-educated – he's also unemployed and owes $30,000 in student loans. So he's just the kind of young voter the Republicans believe they can win next year on their way to retaking Florida, where unemployment remains high – 10.3 percent in October – and the home foreclosure rate is among the highest in the country. In 2008, Obama won Florida by fewer than three percentage points.
Welcome to the biggest, most diverse battleground state in presidential politics, where every demographic group and, lest we forget, every vote matters. It's been 11 years since the days of "hanging chads" and Bush versus Gore, when the Republican governor of Texas and the Democratic vice president came closer to an exact tie in the final deciding state than anyone dreamed possible.
In 2012, Florida will be a more valuable prize than ever. This time, 29 electoral votes are at stake, up from 25 in 2000, of the 270 needed for victory. For the Republican nominee, Florida is a must-win – thus the choice of Tampa for the GOP convention next August. For Obama, winning without Florida will be difficult but doable. He has electoral votes to burn from the 365 he won in '08.
For political junkies, Florida is a double paradise – a swing state in the general election and potential kingmaker with its early Republican primary. In 2008, Sunshine State Republicans dealt former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney a mortal blow when they voted for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominee, in their primary.
Nearly four years later, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has burst forth into a commanding lead in polls of Florida Republicans – threatening to dash Mr. Romney's hopes once again. But talk to Florida tea partyers, who remain well organized around the state, and they're more animated by the prospect of defeating Obama than by coalescing around any one candidate.
"I'm for anybody but Obama – anybody who's for limited government," says Vinny Iannuzzi, who owns a pool maintenance company in Naples and is a tea party regular.
Tea party activists are famously unenthusiastic about Romney. But the latest general election numbers out of Florida from the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) might give people like Mr. Iannuzzi pause. If the GOP nominates Mr. Gingrich, Obama would win Florida, 50 percent to 44 percent. If the party nominates the more moderate Romney, Obama would probably lose Florida, PPP suggests.
But with just a few weeks to go before the start of primary season, the GOP nomination race remains fluid. Neither party is assuming anything but a close outcome in the general election next November – and in Florida, critical voter groups are easy to spot: Hispanics, retirees, under-30s, suburban women, Jewish voters.
Counting on turnout...
Luz Gaviria is one busy woman. She runs a Colombian restaurant – including waiting tables – that she and her husband own in the middle-class West Kendall neighborhood of Miami and has an 11-year-old daughter. After 18 years in the country, she's just become an American citizen.
"This is my first election," says Ms. Gaviria, a registered independent. When asked how she's leaning, she offers a soft endorsement of Obama: "He's good, but I haven't had a chance to check out the others."
Voters like Gaviria make the Democrats nervous. Even if she sticks with Obama, will she actually go to the polls? Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority in the nation, and the president needs to maximize their turnout to make up for declines in support from other groups, such as working-class whites. In 2008, Obama won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote nationwide and 57 percent in Florida.
"We have to recognize that people like Obama as a person, but just because you like someone doesn't mean they should be president."
In the lower-turnout 2010 midterms, Hispanics still voted Democratic nationally, but in Florida they went Republican, favoring Rick Scott for governor and the Cuban-American Marco Rubio for Senate. The difference: the state's substantial Cuban-American population, whose older community in particular tilts Republican and votes reliably.
In 2012, Florida's burgeoning Hispanic vote could decide the state, and the national party committees know it: They both started running Spanish-language TV ads last summer. But on the ground, the Democrats are a step ahead. The Obama campaign in Florida is already knocking on doors and running Spanish-language phone banks. In March, the Florida Democratic Party hired its first Hispanic outreach coordinator, Betsy Franceschini.
"In the past, we were always coming in at the last minute, four months before the election, trying to do things," says Ms. Franceschini, a longtime community leader in Orlando who is originally from Puerto Rico. "Now we're more proactive."
Franceschini has been working closely with Democratic activists around the state on mobilizing the Hispanic vote, organizing Hispanic caucuses, and getting the word out on changes to voter registration laws. In September, she helped set up a "White House Hispanic summit" in Orlando – the first to be held outside Washington. The event connected local Hispanics to White House officials on issues such as the economy, immigration reform, health care, and education.
In the media, Republicans called the summit a campaign "ploy." Franceschini called it "open to everybody" and a way to influence administration policy.
The choice of Orlando was no accident. The hometown of Mickey and Minnie has also become ground zero for Florida's Puerto Ricans, a population that has nearly doubled to 850,000 in the last 10 years. Unlike the Cuban-Americans, still the largest Hispanic subgroup in Florida at 1.2 million, the Puerto Ricans lean Democratic but are less of a sure thing on Election Day.