Get ready for another huge presidential battle in Florida.
Despite the drubbing Democrats took in 2010, nobody is underestimating Barack Obama's ability to take the state that Republicans need to capture the White House — or the difficulty he'll have winning it again.
"Florida is always in play. Neither party can take Florida for granted, but Marco Rubio proved that our voters tend to be center-right and antideficit spending voters,'' said Republican strategist Sally Bradshaw, a top adviser to Mitt Romney in 2008 and now an adviser to expected candidate Haley Barbour. "Obama's going to have to roll up his sleeves if he wants to convince voters here to return him to the White House. Look at Charlie Crist. We're not usually fooled twice."
In 2008, Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter to win more than 50 percent of the vote in Florida.
He won America's biggest battleground state by nearly 3 percentage points after launching the largest grass roots campaign Florida had ever witnessed, and outspending John McCain on TV ads roughly $36 million to $17 million. And that was in a national climate in which Obama was the candidate of change and longstanding GOP strongholds like Indiana and North Carolina went Democratic.
Winning Florida will take another herculean effort, and there's every sign that Obama and the Democratic National Committee intend to undertake it. The campaign had a stunning 600 paid staffers in Florida on Election Day 2010, and 2012 on-the-ground organizing is likely to start a year earlier this time.
"The DNC and the president's team are fully committed to Florida, and understand the importance of winning this state,'' said Fort Lauderdale lawyer Andrew Weinstein, who recently hosted one of several briefings Obama 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina gave to top fundraisers and activists in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.
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That Obama was touting his education agenda in Miami earlier this month and is scheduled to speak at the Miami Dade College graduation in April highlights the importance the White House places here. Likewise, the administration has been eager to help Sen. Bill Nelson raise money for his 2012 re-election.
"As goes Bill Nelson in Florida, so go Barack Obama and Joe Biden in Florida," the vice president said last week while raising money for Nelson in Tampa and Orlando.
Republicans swept Florida's races in 2010, but an off-year election is not much of an indicator for what to expect in the presidential year. The electorate tends to be different, and far bigger, in presidential years.
In 2008, Democratic turnout especially soared in Miami-Dade, Orlando and Jacksonville. Democrats see the Tampa Bay area and Broward ripe for similar turnout spikes. Despite the drubbing they took, Florida Democrats have steadily improved their voter mobilization efforts in recent years and have nearly 570,000 more registered voters than Republicans.
"Florida is going to be a very close state and I think the last election is perfect evidence of that,'' said Mitchell Berger, a veteran Democratic fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale. "Nationwide, there was a shellacking of the Democratic party and the governor's race here was decided by less than 1 percent. And I definitely do not see yet a strong alternative on the Republican side."
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A common myth about Florida's 2008 results is that Obama won mainly by firing up the Democratic base. He did that, but Republicans still had stronger turnout than Democrats, who turned out at about the same rate as in 2000.
More than anything, Obama won by winning moderate and independent voters who invariably decide Florida races. The TV ad he ran over and over again was about cutting taxes for the middle class.
Exit polls in 2008 found that Obama beat McCain by 7 percentage points among independent voters and 16 points among self-described moderates.
"He won the state because he had a great ground game, which I think we will again, and because he appealed to the broad middle,'' said Steve Schale of Tallahassee, who ran Obama's Florida campaign. "If it's a neutral or decent electorate for us, there's no reason to think Barack Obama won't be plenty competitive."
The last credible Florida poll was taken in January by Quinnipiac University. It found voters overall, and specifically independent voters, gave the president a split job approval rating, with 47 percent approving of his performance and 49 percent disapproving. Forty-eight percent said the president did not deserve another term, and 45 percent said he did.
"He's been coming to the middle lately because he realizes the way he started out it would be tough for him to get re-elected,'' said Florida GOP chairman David Bitner. "The independent vote in Florida will be the one that determines Obama will not be serving another four years."
Democrats can win the White House without Florida's electoral votes, but it's virtually impossible for Republicans. That's part of the reason why many pundits already are speculating about the Republican nominee tapping Rubio or Jeb Bush as his running mate, and why the nominating convention will be in Tampa.
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By some estimates, the election of Rick Scott may prove to be the best thing to happen to Obama in Florida.
"Gov. Scott's early performance is such that Florida's very much in play,'' said Florida Democratic chairman Rod Smith, arguing that Scott's rejection of high-speed rail antagonized voters in the crucial I-4 corridor and that the arch-conservative agenda under way in Tallahassee is antagonizing even many Republicans.
"Most people in Florida are kind of down the middle and if you swing too far one way or another you pay a price for it,'' said Smith. "This tea party iteration of the Republican Party is not Florida and it's not going to be successful in the long run."
A key element of the Democratic battle plan to win Florida for Obama and Nelson are Democratic-leaning Hispanics who went overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008 and then barely turned out in 2010. Last cycle, when exit polls showed Rubio won 55 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida, it represented 12 percent of the electorate. It was 14 percent of the electorate in 2008, when Obama won 57 percent of that vote.
"The Democratic Hispanic vote will be enormously important in Florida. We're really invested in doing better there,'' said Democratic chairman Smith.
Consider that Democratic Hispanic vote in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Polk counties is larger than the Democratic Hispanic vote in New York City.
"The issue is, do you really think we're going to have a presidential level turnout in a presidential year?" said Kirk Wagar, Obama's Florida chairman in 2008. "I'm very optimistic, and there's no doubt Florida will be very, very targeted."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]