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Key to Obama victory in Florida: casting a wide net

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story contains corrected information. See the notice below for an explanation.

Barack Obama won Florida by winning Tampa Bay. He won it by racking up a 140,000-vote margin in Miami-Dade and by winning Hispanic voters around Orlando. And he won Florida by siphoning votes out of Republican strongholds such as Escambia, Marion and Collier counties.

It was a well-funded, volunteer-driven campaign that refused to ignore any part of the state, and it turned a 381,000-vote Democratic loss in 2004 into a 200,000-vote win Tuesday.

Not only did Obama score big winning margins in some parts of Florida — nearly 85,000 more votes than John Kerry received in Orange County, 37,000 more in Pinellas — but he dramatically cut his losses in solidly Republican counties across the state. In Duval County, for instance, he mined 33,000 more votes than Kerry did.

"The lesson is you have to fight for every vote and keep your margins down in places where you're not going to win,'' said Miami lawyer Kirk Wagar, Obama's Florida finance chairman. "This is all about effort. No Democrat has ever done a field program like this, ever."

Indeed, Obama's expansive field operation was the talk of the campaign season in Florida. Sixty field offices. About 500 paid organizers. Tens of thousands of volunteers.

Does Tuesday mean Florida is now a blue state? Not really. It's as much a purple battleground as ever.

Despite a strong anti-Republican climate and the Obama juggernaut mobilizing voters, Florida Democrats netted only one more congressional seat and, at best, one more state House seat. Many Democrats had expected the party would pick up at least five House seats.

There was no Democratic tide in Florida. Obama had no strong coattails for local candidates, and on constitutional amendments, Floridians voted strongly to cut taxes, ban gay marriage and oppose tax increases for community colleges.

"I think we have momentum back on the Republican side," said House Speaker-designate Ray Sansom, R-Destin. "Florida is still very conservative."

Gov. Charlie Crist failed to deliver his state for McCain, and on Tuesday he issued a statement congratulating the president-elect.

"Now that the people of Florida and our nation have spoken, it is time for our nation to unite behind President-elect Obama with one purpose — to strengthen our economy and increase opportunity for all Americans," Crist's statement said.

While Republican losses could have been much worse in Florida, there are ominous signs for the GOP in Tuesday's results. Once-safe Republican counties such as Duval and Sarasota increasingly look competitive, and the 14 percent of the electorate that is Hispanic swung dramatically to the Democrat.

President Bush won Florida Hispanics by 12 percentage points in 2004. Obama started his Florida campaign late and had no history with Hispanics, but he won that group by 15 percentage points.

"This is the watershed election where you have seen a structural realignment of the Hispanic vote in Florida that will have an impact on statewide, national and local elections for a generation to come," said Fernand Amandi, vice president of Bendixen & Associates, which does polling for the Democratic Party.

"We have been saying this was going to happen for years, but now we can actually see it with quantifiable data,'' Amandi said. "As much as any other group, President-elect Obama owes his election to the Latino voters."

Non-Cuban Hispanic voters helped Obama overwhelmingly win Interstate 4 counties like Orange and Osceola.

And Amandi said his exit polling showed Obama actually won 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Miami-Dade, which would be dramatic shift. McCain won support from 75 percent of older Cubans, and Obama won support from 75 percent of younger Cubans, he said.

Half a million more voters turned out than in 2004, but contrary to expectations overall turnout was actually down a few points, to 71.5 percent, from 2004. African-Americans accounted for 13 percent of the electorate, up from 12 percent, but exits polls showed the percentage of voters 18-29 years old actually dropped slightly to 15 percent.

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

CORRECTION: Bendixen & Associates vice president Fernand Amandi said his company's exit polling showed Obama won 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Miami-Dade. Earlier versions of this story used in print and posted online contained an incorrect percentage.

Key to Obama victory in Florida: casting a wide net 11/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 10, 2008 3:07pm]
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