Why the 2012 Election Could All Come Down to Florida
"The Puerto Ricans are very volatile in terms of voting," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "A lot has to do with making a personal appeal, getting someone who can come in and speak Spanish and energize them."
The Republicans have in their hip pocket two powerful Spanish-speaking surrogates for their eventual nominee: former Gov. Jeb Bush and Senator Rubio. The Democrats don't have anyone analogous, thus the extra significance of the ground game.
Hispanics – namely, Cuban-Americans, who are centered in south Florida – are also influential in the GOP primary. Romney recently locked up the endorsements of three prominent Cuban-Americans: Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen; Rep. Mario Diaz Balart; and his brother, former Rep. Lincoln Diaz Balart. All three endorsed McCain in '08 and were critical to his victory over Romney.
Rubio has said he won't endorse in the primary. But he remains a special subject of fascination for the general election as a possible running mate for the Republican nominee. Rubio adamantly rules it out, but that doesn't stop the chatter.
Brad Coker, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, sees Romney as the likely GOP nominee – despite the Gingrich surge – and if that happens, believes Romney will win Florida in November even without Rubio on the ticket. Mr. Coker takes Rubio at his word that he'll resist any effort to get him on the ticket. But if Rubio is asked and relents, Coker says, "he would be helpful in a lot of places, not just Florida."
At the Cafe Versailles in Miami, the social center of Little Havana, the Republican ticket – with or without Rubio – is sure to get the support of the old men who hang out by the takeout window and sip their Cuban coffee.
Manuel Coll, a retired truck driver and musician, reminisces about his arrival in the United States on July 2, 1960, and goes to his car to get his old Cuban passport, which he proudly shows his visitors.
When asked about Obama, Mr. Coll goes easy on him, as if he's a son who's in over his head. "He's not bad, but his suits are too big for him," Coll says. Who would be better? "Gingrich. He's prepared to be president." And how about the 40-year-old Rubio as his running mate? "Too young."
The younger set ...
If the Cuban "old guard" is reliably Republican, the same can't be said about their children. Alejandro Miyar, a 30-year-old law student at the University of Miami and the son of Cuban immigrants, says he became a Democrat the day President Bill Clinton visited his middle school in Miami.
"I don't feel Marco Rubio and I have much in common," despite their common heritage, says Mr. Miyar, who worked for the Obama campaign in Florida in the last election.
Miyar also comes from the youngest swath of voters in the 2008 elections – the 18-to-29-year-olds, who backed Obama by the widest margin, a historic 34 points. Today, young voters are still the group most favorably disposed toward the president in national polls – 49 percent, according to the Pew Research Center – though their enthusiasm has waned substantially since Obama took office.
In Florida, the Millennial Generation is actually the least likely to approve of Obama's job performance, according to PPP. In a PPP poll released earlier this month, the 18-to-29-year-olds registered only 33 percent job approval for Obama, compared with 45 percent among all Florida voters.
But PPP also found that when given a choice, the youngest voters choose Obama over Romney by 10 points and Obama over Gingrich by 11 points.
"Florida's a particularly dramatic case of a phenomenon we're seeing nationally. Young voters aren't very thrilled with the job Obama's done, but they're still planning to vote for him over any of the Republican alternatives," says Tom Jensen of PPP.
At the recent Miami Book Fair, Sam Hayashi and Irina Tavera are eager to talk politics. Both recent college grads, they say they'll vote for Obama, though neither plans to volunteer.
"I was up in the air about Obama in the beginning; before the Republican debates, I was sure he would lose," says Ms. Tavera. But now, "the Republican candidates are pretty much destroying themselves from within. Obama's just sitting back and enjoying the show."
Mr. Hayashi thinks the Republicans' best option is Romney, but he can't see Obama losing. "I can't imagine a young person not voting for Obama," he says, though he acknowledges that by living in Miami, he's in a bit of a progressive bubble.
Polls show that Obama has plenty to worry about with young voters. A new group called Generation Opportunity is using social media to promote polling data that show plenty of room for Republican inroads with Millennials over the state of the economy, high federal debt and spending, and America's place in the world.
"In a very broad sense for 2012, that constituency is wide open and up for competition," says Paul Conway, president of Generation Opportunity.
And even if Florida is well known for its retirees, younger voters are growing in importance. People under 50 now make up 49 percent of the Florida electorate, compared with 45 percent just three years ago.
The senior bloc ...
Ask Rod Smith, chairman of the state Democratic Party, about the big challenges Obama faces in Florida, and the answer is quick: turnout.
Will all those young voters who knocked on doors and rallied for Obama in 2008 volunteer again? Will they even make it to the polls? Ditto the non-Cuban Hispanics.
Another key voter bloc in Florida, senior citizens, can be counted on to cast ballots. But in this early going, the polling isn't promising for Obama. The recent PPP poll of Florida voters shows Obama underwater in his job approval rating among voters over 65, with 42 percent positive and 54 percent negative. And unlike young voters, who aren't happy with Obama's job performance but want to reelect him anyway, seniors are ready to vote Republican.
Romney's strongest favorability in Florida is with seniors – and among that group, he trounces Obama, 54 percent to 40 percent, according to PPP. Gingrich also does well among seniors, beating Obama 51 percent to 44 percent.
Some retirement communities, such as The Villages, north of Orlando, are GOP strongholds. But Obama can't even feel completely secure among Florida's older Jewish voters, a mainstay of the Democratic coalition. Jeannie Hochhauser and her friend Seymour Wilens, both of Sunrise, Fla., are solid Obama supporters, but mention Israel, and they raise concerns.
"I don't like the fact that he's catering to the Arabs," says Ms. Hochhauser, a schoolteacher from Brooklyn, N.Y., who retired to Florida 26 years ago. "It bothers me. But it bothers me more that seniors are hurting and people are having to walk away from their homes." So, she says, she's for Obama, but "he could be a little more emphatic."
Election 101: Where the GOP candidates stand on social issues
Mr. Wilens, who retired here from New Jersey, is active in the Sunrise Democratic Club. On a recent visit to the club, his congresswoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D), spoke of Obama's support for Israel and handed out fliers about Obama and Israel.
"There's quite a bit of doubt," says Wilens.
Still, Obama has no better advocate among Florida's politically active Jewish community than Representative Wasserman Schultz, who also chairs the Democratic National Committee.
"Debbie's the sweetest thing," says Hochhauser.