Strong turnout for Barack Obama tilts Florida his way

Obama's strategy: Focus on demographics, get out voters
Hundreds of voters wait in long lines to cast their ballots on Tuesday in Miami. Some were still waiting at 1 a.m. Wednesday even after Obama had already won the election. El Nuevo Herald
Hundreds of voters wait in long lines to cast their ballots on Tuesday in Miami. Some were still waiting at 1 a.m. Wednesday even after Obama had already won the election.El Nuevo Herald
Published November 8 2012
Updated November 8 2012

The optimism among Mitt Romney's Florida campaign team was clear on Twitter throughout Election Day:

10:05 a.m., senior Romney adviser Brett Doster: "53% of Clay County already voted by 9:45 a.m. Huge NE FL turnout projected. Great news for @mittromney."

10:58 a.m., Doster again: "2 to 3 hour waits currently in Republican heavy Kendall Precincts in Miami-Dade."

1:29 p.m., Romney adviser Alberto Martinez: "Bellwether precinct in Coral Gables projecting 90% GOP turnout."

5:45 p.m., Attorney General Pam Bondi crowed: "Big lines at Fish Hawk, which houses one of the largest GOP precincts in the country."

6:55 p.m., former Gov. Jeb Bush chimed in: "Great numbers in Pasco and Volusia counties in fl for Romney. I predict he wins!"

When most state polls closed at 7 p.m. and early results started streaming in, the tweets from team Romney ceased almost entirely. The numbers pointed to another Florida photo finish: Barack Obama narrowly behind Romney in the onetime conservative stronghold of Duval County; the president comfortably leading in Hillsborough, the state's best bellwether; overall, Romney behind.

Florida is still counting votes, but in the end Obama probably will again win Florida, though his slim 237,000-vote margin in 2008 will be even slimmer, around 50,000 votes.

As exhausted campaign operatives on both sides are preparing to pack up and finally sleep, Republicans find themselves having to acknowledge at least one decisive factor: The hype about Obama's vaunted get-out-the-vote machine was on the mark.

The campaign methodically built an enormous, data- and volunteer-driven ground game aimed at registering as many new voters as possible, navigating new registration restrictions and turning voters out to the polls early. And then it worked to ensure first-time and sporadic voters actually turned out.

By Election Day, nearly 800 full-time Obama staffers were on the ground in Florida, helping tens of thousands of volunteers turn out neighbors, friends and strangers.

Much less so than in 2008, when Obama was a fresh-faced outsider and much of the country was disenchanted after eight years of George W. Bush, Obama this year had to rely heavily on the Democratic base in Florida rather than the moderate middle.

Exit polls in 2008 showed Obama won independent voters in Florida by 7 percentage points, while this year Romney won them by 1 point. The results in Sarasota County, a bastion of moderate Republicans, highlight Obama's challenge better than anywhere: In 2008, Obama lost Sarasota by about 200 votes; on Tuesday, he lost Sarasota by more than 15,000 votes.

While many pundits long ago saw Florida as likely Romney country — after all, Democrats were virtually extinct in Tallahassee after 2010 — the Obama campaign focused on demographics. A steadily growing Hispanic population is changing basic assumptions about the political map in Florida.

"They saw very early that was going to be a critical vote in Florida," state Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith said of the Obama campaign's focus on Hispanic voters, as well as the party's targeting of Puerto Rican voters in the Orlando area.

Four years ago, exit polls showed that Hispanics accounted for 14 percent of the Florida electorate, and Obama won those voters by 15 percentage points. This year, the exit polls showed Hispanics make up 16 percent of the Florida electorate and Obama won by 22 percentage points.

"The grass roots organization is the first piece, and the second piece is the changing demographics of Florida," said Ashley Walker, Florida director of the Obama campaign, and after Tuesday likely the pre-eminent Democratic operative in Florida. "The electorate is much more diverse than folks realize and those trends favor Democrats."

In a race won by razor-thin margins, nowhere mattered more than Miami-Dade, where Obama managed to increase his eye-popping 140,000-vote victory margin in 2008 to an uprecedented 204,000-vote margin this year. Miami-Dade by itself essentially delivered Florida to Obama.

Miami-Dade was also ground zero for messy voting, with voters casting votes at 1 a.m. Wednesday when the presidency had already been decided. Some waited more than six hours to cast ballots.

"I told them, 'Thank Rick Scott for the line today,' " said former state Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who worked those long lines repeatedly up to Election Day, reminding voters that Scott and the GOP-controlled Legislature cut back early voting days.

"Obama won the most where the lines were the longest," Gelber said. "It was hubris and overreaching by the Republicans, who may learn a lesson that 'Maybe we shouldn't abuse our prisoners that much because sometimes they'll get back at you.' "

Romney's team ran a far more aggressive get-out-the-vote-operation in Florida this year than John McCain did four years ago. That showed especially in southwest Florida counties like Lee, where his victory margin was more than 16,000 more than McCain's and about 13,000 more in Collier County.

Ultimately, those improvements could not compensate for Obama's strong performances in counties including Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Orange and Broward.

Contact Adam C. Smith at