It has been a fundamental rule of Florida politics for decades: Statewide campaigns are won and lost on the I-4 corridor.
Today that celebrated swing-voter swath stretching from Tampa Bay to Daytona Beach is poised to deliver Florida's 29 electoral votes to Mitt Romney.
An exclusive Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 poll of likely voters along the Interstate 4 corridor finds Romney leading Obama 51 percent to 45 percent, with 4 percent undecided.
"Romney has pretty much nailed down Florida," said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, which conducted the poll for the Times and its media partners. "Unless something dramatically changes — an October surprise, a major gaffe — Romney's going to win Florida.''
The formula for Democrats to win Florida has long been simple: win big in the Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, avoid overwhelming losses in conservative North Florida, and stay close to even along the I-4 corridor. Obama and John McCain essentially tied in the battleground four years ago.
"Being that this is I-4, the Florida battleground, the region of the state that usually tells you how it's going to come out, for Romney to be up 6 points right now … they should be able to call Florida as soon as the polls close in Pensacola if they do their exit polling right," Coker said.
The Oct. 22-24 survey focused only on voters in the I-4 corridor, but Tampa Bay on the western end has an uncanny knack for almost exactly matching Florida's statewide results. Four years ago Obama beat John McCain in Florida and Tampa Bay — defined as Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Polk and Citrus counties — by the same margin, 51 percent to 48 percent.
Today? The poll shows Romney leading Tampa Bay 50 percent to 46 percent.
"I truly was looking for Obama to go in and bring in some Republicans and say we are going to do things together. The very idea that this country is run without a budget is a shame. How many households can run without a budget?" said Republican David Stratton, 67, a retired home builder in Valrico, one of the voters surveyed. "I blame Obama for that. I'm sorry … he's supposed to lead the country. He's the one who promised hope and change. Not only didn't it happen, he's proven it's nothing more than rhetoric."
Central Florida on the eastern end of the I-4 corridor skews more Republican and includes Orange, Osceola, Lake, Brevard, Sumter, Marion, Seminole, Volusia and Flagler counties. Romney is leading in Central Florida 52 percent to 44 percent.
The telephone survey of 625 registered Florida voters in the I-4 corridor — all likely to vote in the November election — was conducted Oct. 22-24 for the Times, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13. The poll, which included respondents using land lines and cellphones, was conducted by Mason-Dixon, a nonpartisan, Jacksonville-based company. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Both campaigns have concentrated relentlessly on the I-4 corridor. The nation's top five media markets for presidential campaign ads through most of October include Tampa (No. 3) and Orlando (No. 5), according to the Wesleyan Media Project. Obama campaigned Thursday in Tampa and returns to Orlando on Monday, while Romney campaigned Saturday in Pasco County and Kissimmee.
"I'm satisfied with the way things are going. They're moving slow, but you can't expect a whole lot too fast, especially with the Republicans standing in the way every step of the way," said Democrat Nicholas Ficarrotta, 59, a retired electrician in Tampa who was surveyed and supports Obama. "It would be nice if everybody looked out for one another."
But the poll underscores deep disappointment in Obama in the main battleground region of America's biggest battleground state. Fifty one percent of I-4 voters disapprove of the president's job performance, 54 percent see the country on the wrong track, and 55 percent say they are not better off today than four years ago.
Asked who they trust more to improve the economy, Romney leads Obama 52 percent to 44 percent. Likewise, 52 percent trust Romney more to look out for the middle class and 46 percent trust Obama more.
"The country is heading in the wrong direction," said Richard Invinjack, a 70-year-old retired IT specialist who lives in the Villages and is voting for Romney. "Too much debt, too much deficit, bad foreign policy, too much making people dependent on the government, too many handouts, which I call buying votes, the country is going down the wrong track 100 percent of the way."
Only on the question of foreign policy were Obama and Romney roughly tied in terms of voters' trust. Last week's foreign policy debate in Boca Raton did little or nothing to shift views, and the economy is the overriding issue this year anyway.
One in three voters feel the economy is getting better in Florida, while 22 percent feel it is getting worse and 44 percent say it's staying about the same.
"The same in Florida is not good," Coker said.
The poll shows stark divisions along racial and ethnic lines. Six in 10 white voters in the I-4 corridor are backing Romney, virtually all African-Americans support Obama, and the president is leading among Hispanics by nearly 20 percentage points. African-Americans and Hispanics accounted for about 20 percent of the I-4 voters surveyed.
Romney leads Obama among crucial independent voters 49 percent to 41 percent, and he leads among men by 16 percentage points. Obama leads among women 50 percent to 46 percent, but that's not nearly as much of an advantage as Democrats have hoped for.
Overall, 52 percent of the voters have a favorable view of Romney and 39 percent have an unfavorable view. Forty-seven percent have an unfavorable opinion of the president and 44 percent a favorable one.
Few Americans receive as much attention from the presidential campaigns as those living around I-4. Campaign commercials flood their TV airwaves, and rarely a week goes by without a visit from one of the candidates or their top surrogates.
You might think these all-important swing corridor voters relish their outsized influence.
Only one in four say all the attention is a good thing, while seven in 10 consider it annoying.
Don't worry folks, it's almost over.
Times staff writer Brittany Alana Davis contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]