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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Obama returns to Jax eight years to the day and Schale recaps the victory



Eight years ago, Barack Obama traveled to Jacksonville for a final rally of his first presidential campaign. It was less than 24 hours before the polls closed and he huddled with his Florida campaign director Steve Schale for the nail-biting news.

Schale pulled out his Blackberry and explained the stats: The early voting results showed that 60 percent of the electorate had voted and it was favoring Democrats. Black turnout was particularly encouraging - even in Republican strongholds like Jacksonville, and it looked as though for the first time in a more than a decade Florida was going to go blue.

By the next day, Obama had rebounded from his primary-inflicted wounds to win Florida's crucial I-4 corridor and capture the state.

He did it by seizing on the universe of "sporadic" and untapped voters, by demonstrating a technologically-savvy voter registration drives, and people-intensive get out the vote efforts that harnessed enthusiasm among young people and blacks for the first black president.

Obama returned to Jacksonville Thursday, exactly eight years to the day of his final visit and Schale, now a lobbyist and political consultant, traveled from Tallahassee to greet him.

"I’m smart enough to know that I got to work for arguably the greatest candidate of my generation,'' he told reporters at the University of North Florida.

He recalled how Obama had arrived eight years ago at about 1 p.m. at the Jacksonville Veteran's Arena and it was only two-thirds full. The president had learned that morning that his grandmother had died and preceded to give "one of the worst speeches I've ever heard him give -- for all of the reasons you would ever expect,'' Schale recalled.

But as Obama spoke, Schale was also getting the vote counts in for the last day of Florida's "Souls to the Polls" early voting "and our lead, the partisan lead, was bigger than John Kerry lost Florida by,'' he said.

"We really couldn't lose. I pretty much promised him a win before he left,'' Schale said.

Schale recalled being "strangely confident that entire campaign" -- even scratching out a prediction of an 50-46 percent Obama victory in Florida on a crumpled paper he carried with him.

But after telling the then-Illinois senator he was going to win, he had a gut check and he had a new fear it might not happen.

Obama not only won 51-48, he captured the state again in 2012.

For Schale, who had previously only run the state House campaigns for Florida Democrats, it was "the coolest job I’m ever going to have.

"I knew just enough to know what I didn’t know,'' he said Thursday. "When I got the job here, we were 8 points down in most polling. [Former Republican Party of Florida Chairman] Jim Greer held a press conference saying Obama’s not actually playing in Florida. Our job was to block and tackle and turn people out. We registered 240,000 people in 10 weeks. We always viewed it that we had to prove the world wrong."

In four months, Obama's campaign registered 200,000 new voters in Florida, opened 50 state field offices, recruited 600,000 volunteers and allocated $40 million to fight Republican Sen. John McCain.

Under Schale's direction, the 2008 campaign divided the state into five regions, or ''pods,'' each with its own staff and message geared to regional concerns. It harnessed social networking and cell phones to allow grassroots organizers set up their own voter registration drives, home-grown phone banks and -- before the age of Twitter -- text messaging chains.

''If this works, it's hard to think this isn't the academic model of the future,'' Schale said at the time.

The grassroots organization was so complete that even Republican strategists had become admirers.

''They've done everything right and very few things wrong,'' said Sally Bradshaw, the former campaign manager for Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in a November 2008 interview with the Miami Herald. ``They've figured it out. They've broken the code.''

Schale, now a lobbyist and political consultant in Tallahassee, has turned his occasional blog postings into a daily analysis of the Schale in Jaxstate of the race in Florida.

His deep look at the implications of the early voting numbers in the context of what he watched as Obama's Florida director in 2008 and consultant in 2012, have made him a popular go-to source for political reporters and cable news channels.

"We're pushing 60 percent of likely turnout of Election Day,'' he told Rachel Maddow Thursday night on MSNBC. "The good news is, we'll know pretty early how Florida is going to go."

Republican and Democrats in the early vote numbers "are basically a dead heat," Schale said. More blacks and Hispanics have turned out early than ever before in Florida voting history and this time there were 100,000 more Democrats "with no voting history" who had shown up to vote than first-time Republican voters.

Before returning to Jacksonville this week, Schale said he looked through old photographs from eight years ago.

"I knew just enough to know what I didn’t know,'' he said. "I’ve gotten to do some amazingly cool things in my life and a lot of it’s because this guy took a chance on me -- a kid who ran state House campaigns."

Photos: Top: Steve Schale with Barack Obama in 2008, by Mary Ellen Klas; Lower: Schale talking to an international reporter in 2016, by Alex Leary

[Last modified: Friday, November 4, 2016 1:59am]


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