JACKSONVILLE — Across the street from the downtown Rosa Parks bus station, 71-year-old Willie Bussey held court beside a shaded hot dog stand. Donning his homemade Barack Obama T-shirt and recounting how he once banished his son from the house until he produced a valid voter registration card, Bussey showed off the Obama donation envelopes he pushes on everyone he can.
"People gave their lives for this right, and this is a history-making election. No black man has ever been this close to being president, and in my lifetime probably no one will get this close again,'' said Bussey, a retired longshoreman who is African-American, like the vast majority of bus riders filtering in and out of the Jacksonville bus depot. "I'm hopeful. But I ride the bus every day and I always ask how many people on the bus are registered to vote. Very seldom do a lot of young people raise their hands."
Obama is counting on changing that dynamic in this state, where African-American turnout can determine who wins and loses Florida's 27 electoral votes. To hear the voices at the Rosa Parks bus station and to see what Obama already has done in key primary contests, there's every reason to think he could do it.
"To be honest, I'm not usually very interested in politics, and in past elections most of my friends never thought it mattered much. This is different,'' said 19-year-old Vanessa Long. "People are following it this year, and I am so excited because I feel like we really have a chance to make history this time and actually change things."
Florida is just starting to get to know Obama, as he and Hillary Clinton avoided campaigning in the state's unsanctioned Jan. 29 primary. But in the 16 contested Democratic primaries with significant black populations, the African-American turnout jumped 115 percent. Overwhelmingly, those votes went to Obama.
"I have no doubt he will significantly increase African-American turnout across the country. It was 60 percent in 2004, and I would expect it to be 72 percent this year,'' said David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic studies, one of the country's foremost experts on African-American voting trends.
"In most cases that's not necessarily enough for him to carry a state, but Florida is one of those places that a big African-American turnout certainly has the potential to put him over the top," said Bositis, putting Virginia and North Carolina in the same category.
That alone can't deliver Florida, but if Obama continues to run strong or competitively among Hispanic and independent voters, African-American turnout could give him a pivotal edge.
About 12 percent of the Florida electorate is black, but African-American turnout is inconsistent. In 2000, when Al Gore barely lost the state and the White House, black voters accounted for 15 percent of the overall vote. In 2004, when John Kerry lost Florida by 5 percentage points, that number was 12 percent.
Despite a massive mobilization effort by political groups working independently of the Kerry-Edwards campaign but in hopes of helping the ticket, African-American turnout in Florida was just 61 percent. Overall turnout was 74 percent.
"I can't remember there being anywhere near the kind of grass roots enthusiasm that there is now for this candidate,'' Republican Edythe Abdullah, president of the downtown Florida Community College, said on the way into a fundraising reception for Obama Friday in Jacksonville. "There is an excitement building for him and for America — and that's people who have been disenfranchised and lost hope in the system and the government as well as some of the most wealthy people here ."
Republicans aren't writing off Florida's African-American vote and have a potentially strong messenger in Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. Dubbed Florida's first African-American governor, Crist has been lavishly praised by African-American leaders for his accessibility and for embracing some of their top priorities.
"The African-American community will support Sen. McCain and will be very engaged in this campaign because of the efforts we've been putting in under Gov. Crist's leadership," state Republican Chairman Jim Greer said. "We're not going to expect their vote, we're going to go out and earn it."
The governor, for instance, won big praise from civil rights leaders for streamlining the process for ex-felons to regain their voting rights, an obstacle that overwhelmingly and disproportionately affected African-Americans. Crist's office recently announced that more than 115,000 ex-felons will be newly eligible to vote in November thanks to the streamlined restoration program, and according to state records about one-third of those are likely to be African-American.
"I wish I could vote, because, man, it's time for a change in this country, and this is a historic election'' said 21-year-old Terrell Posley, who waited for his bus and explained that he lost his voting rights because of a burglary conviction. He had not heard of the changes to make it easier for ex-felons to regain their rights.
Still, the GOP will face a tall task in drawing African-American voters to their candidate. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed Obama narrowly leading McCain overall in Florida and favored by 95 percent of black Floridians.
Jacksonville is in Duval County, which, like all of North Florida, is Republican territory in presidential elections. Bush won the county by 17 points in 2000 and 15 points in 2004. But Democrats nonetheless target Duval because one-third of the nearly 500,000 Duval County voters are African-American.
Between increased black turnout, younger voters, and independents, veteran Democratic strategists think Obama could cut McCain's Duval margin at least to single digits in November, which would be a significant step toward winning the state.
It's not so farfetched: U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, won Duval in 2006, and that same year Democratic Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink lost it by just 1 percentage point.
In the Democratic primary with no campaigning by the candidates, Obama beat Clinton in Duval County 43,000 votes to Clinton's 29,000.
Democrats, though, are looking at mining black votes in North Florida outside of overwhelmingly black urban areas typically targeted by campaigns. With a vastly improved statewide voter list, the state party has identified 150,000 black voters who live in North Florida precincts that are majority white.
And across Florida, Democrats count well over 500,000 registered black voters who did not turn out in 2004. They think they can pull at least a third of those to the polls in November.
The Florida GOP has long enjoyed an overwhelming advantage over Democrats in the machinery of turning out votes. But this year the Obama campaign has an unprecedented financial advantage and is talking about putting down a Democratic get-out-the-voter organization the likes of which Florida has never seen from a Democrat. The campaign this month deployed 400 specially trained volunteers to launch a statewide voter registration and mobilization drive
"With Obama, this is a different operation on the ground than we've had at any time in Florida history,'' said U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, who like the rest of Florida's black representatives jumped behind Clinton when she looked like the inevitable nominee. "Usually at this point, we're begging for resources, but the campaign has already taken the step, and I mean a huge one, of putting people on the ground with the promise of hundreds to come."
State Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, an early Obama backer, said not only the operation but the messenger and message is energizing black voters.
"We've got a role model in politics here, and we haven't had that in a long time," Hill said. "You're going to see a lot of men really respond to his message about personal responsibility."
An outdoor public bus station on a sweltering afternoon in a city racked by crime and poverty might seem an unlikely place to find optimism and idealism. That it was so widespread in Jacksonville last week may be among the best weapons Democrats have heading into November.
"It's not that Barack Obama is a black man. It's that he's a strong black man, who can be a great leader,'' said 40-year-old Lavora Felton, who is in school to get her day care operator license. "Usually, people don't care anything about the election — it's rigged or whatever — but this time people feel like it's a chance to change history."
All that hope at the Rosa Parks transit station, though, was mixed with anxiety.
"Obama is the most inspirational candidate people have seen at least since Kennedy,'' said Terrence Holden, a 29-year-old cable installer. "If he loses, it will be devastating to the black community. For the young people especially it's going to be terrible, because Obama is showing that the American dream is still possible."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8241.