Analysis

Democrats might not need Florida to win the White House

A day hasn't gone by lately without some prominent Democrat wringing his or her hands over Florida's Democratic primary conundrum and darkly warning that Democrats are on the verge of kissing off Florida's 27 electoral votes.

Well, it's time to broach an unspeakable, heretical suggestion in this state: Maybe, just maybe, Democrats can continue snubbing America's biggest swing state and still march into the White House.

Sorry to say it, folks, but Florida may not be center of the political universe this year.

"We've been the target for so many years it's very tough for people to think we might not be,'' said Robin Rorapaugh, a veteran Democratic consultant based in Broward County. "But it is still very much up in the air as to Florida being a targeted state. Part of it is who becomes the nominee, and part of it is balancing the cost of starting a campaign from scratch here."

And part of it is the national electoral map that looks a whole lot more hospitable for Democrats than it did in 2004 or 2000.

"With all these states it's clearly a resource decision, and if you can win the White House without spending millions of dollars in Florida, why would you?'' asked Miami-based Democratic consultant Derek Newton.

The standard Democratic path is to count on some 15 thoroughly Democratic states like New York and California to deliver about 200 electoral votes, and then focus on winning enough swing states to reach the winning number of 270. One Democratic governor once derided the strategy as competing in 16 states and "then hope for a triple bank-shot to win Ohio or Florida."

But the map is changing. Not only are big swing states such as Ohio looking more Democratic-leaning than they have in years, but a host of formerly red states from Virginia to Colorado look ripe for Democrats to pick off.

The Obama campaign is even talking up their ability to win such solidly red states as Kansas and North Carolina.

"Right now it's a lot easier to see some red states going to blue,'' said pollster John Zogby, but he cautioned that despite the national political climate no one should underestimate the Democrats' ability to lose.

For Republicans, the basic electoral vote math remains the same: lose Florida, lose the election.

So no Democratic campaign will admit to writing off Florida, and the nominee will make enough token effort in Florida to force the Republicans to spend money protecting those 27 electoral votes. Indeed, the hard-and-fast campaign decisions won't come until fall, and then will be guided by week-by-week polling data.

By most estimates, Obama would be more likely to de-emphasize Florida than Clinton.

The New York senator was the last Democrat to agree to boycott Florida's primary, has a deep network of supporters in Florida and sprinkled her campaign staff with veterans of Florida campaigns.

All along she has signaled her intention to run a traditional general election strategy focused heavily on the big three swing states: Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Her aides have been quietly fretting for months about how the delay in organizing Florida could hurt in the general election.

In contrast, Obama has always stressed a broader strategy to campaign across the country, rather than just a handful of key states, and his commitment to playing hard in Florida has never been certain.

His campaign has barely attempted diplomacy in repeatedly dismissing as irrelevant the 1.75-million Democrats who voted in Florida's delegate-free primary. While many Florida Democrats warn that their party's nominee will lose Florida if the state has no delegation at the nominating convention, the Obama campaign has never said that's crucial.

Still, local Obama organizers have been active on their own, earlier this month organizing some 200 house parties across the state. The campaign insists both Michigan and Florida are priorities for November.

"If and when there is a nominee, one of the most important tasks in front of us is to make sure we campaign aggressively and build organizations in Michigan and Florida,'' said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. "That is going to be one of our first and most important tasks, to make up for lost ground."

A key sign of how hard Obama might play in Florida: whether he commits to accept public campaign financing and thereby limits his general election spending to about $85-million.

Obama, who is breaking fundraising records, has been vague on that point, but if he decides to opt out of public financing constraints, he would have much more leeway to compete in expensive Florida.

In elections, deciding where to campaign always comes down to resources; where do you get the most bang for the money?

Figuring out the most effective way to win 270 electoral votes involves a mix of political and demographic analysis, polling, computer models and gut instinct. The calculation is even harder this year for Democrats because of Sen. John McCain's potential to put in play Democratic-leaning states from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania with his appeal to cross-over voters.

A close look at the political trends in Florida — deep anxiety over the economy, Democrats gaining seats in the Legislature, state Cabinet and Congress — suggest 2008 could offer Democrats a prime opportunity in Florida. But the biggest selling point the state offers the Democratic nominee is size.

If Obama or Clinton wins Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico — teetering states Bush won in 2004 — that doesn't add up to Florida's 27 electoral votes.

"Florida equals about five other states. The idea is to give yourself as much leeway as possible to make a mistake, and Florida covers a multitude of mistakes if you're able to pull it out,'' noted Democratic consultant Tad Devine, a top strategist for John Kerry who also remembers the intense internal debate within the Al Gore camp late in 2000 over shifting resources from Ohio to Florida.

"I think there's a very, very good chance that Florida is going to be up close to the top of the target list,'' said Devine, who is not working with Obama or Clinton.

Still, there are plenty of reasons for Democrats to see Florida as out of reach.

A quick look at the state shows Republicans controlling the Legislature in Tallahassee, a Republican governor with stratospheric approval ratings, and the Democrats having handily lost the last two gubernatorial races and the last presidential race.

Add in the political damage done by the Democratic presidential candidates snubbing Florida voters with a campaign boycott, which means a late start building a campaign structure in this state, and Florida looks like a tough and expensive climb.

Kerry took criticism for waiting until June to hire a Florida director in 2004, but independent groups aggressively mobilizing Democratic voters had started their Florida work months earlier. There has been nothing of the kind in Florida this year organized by the campaigns.

Are we still America's biggest battleground state? Probably, but for the first time in a long time, don't bank on it.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.

Democrats might not need Florida to win the White House 03/15/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 3:37pm]

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