TAMPA — While most of the political world was still buzzing about Mitt Romney's overwhelming Florida primary win, Ashley Walker rose from her seat to address a room full of Florida field directors for the Barack Obama campaign gathered at the University of Tampa.
"We need to strive for excellence every day. Each day when we get up we need to think about what we can do to earn Florida's 29 electoral votes for President Obama,'' Walker, the Florida director of Organizing for America, told the assembled operatives last week.
For Romney allies, who boasted of five full-time staffers — a fraction of what Obama already has in Florida — and a Florida ground organization that mainly consisted of mailing fliers to absentee votes, the scene in Tampa should be intimidating. Four years ago, Obama won Florida with the largest voter mobilization effort ever seen in Florida. This year's effort could dwarf that.
"There's never been an operation this size in Florida 10 months out from an election, not for a presidential (campaign), not for a gubernatorial. But we're going to grow," Walker told her Florida lieutenants. "Very soon, we're going to be in a position where the only place we can do trainings is in a hotel ballroom."
Obama, though, may need every last campaign operative in Florida to carry the state again. Nine months before Election Day, a host of signs point to an uphill battle for the president in America's biggest battleground state:
The economy. Obama no longer is the fresh face of change campaigning to succeed to an unpopular president. Now he's the incumbent running in a state with nearly 10 percent unemployment and where nearly half of Florida homeowners are underwater on their mortgages. Signs point to a steady uptick in Florida's economy, but few economists foresee a dramatic improvement by November.
Money. Four years ago, Obama won Florida by less than 3 percentage points after outspending John McCain more than 2-1. Early predictions that Democrats would have an overwhelming financial advantage in 2012 look increasingly unlikely. "Super PACs" that can accept unlimited campaign donations from corporations, unions and individuals are significantly narrowing Obama's fundraising advantage. Anti-Obama super PACs are far outpacing their Democratic counterparts in money raising.
Voter registration. Florida Democrats boasted for more than a year before the 2008 election about their growing voter registration advantage in Florida. But that Democratic advantage has dropped nearly 30 percent since November 2008, down to about 470,000 registered voters. The number of Floridians opting to register with neither party has jumped nearly 10 percent.
Key demographic groups. Every vote matters in a close election, and ominous signs abound for Obama nine months out. While Obama won independent voters by 7 percentage points four years ago, a recent Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll by Mason Dixon Polling & Research showed Obama and Romney neck and neck among independents.
Obama lost Florida voters older than 65 by 8 percentage points in 2008. A recent Quinnipiac University poll suggested it could be worse this time. Only 38 percent approved of his job performance. He won Florida Hispanic voters by 15 points four years ago, but a January poll of Florida Hispanics by the GOP firm Resurgent Republic found him leading an unnamed Republican nominee by just 7 points.
"Close elections are about momentum, and the momentum in Florida is moving in the direction of the Republican Party right now," Republican National Committee political director Rick Wiley said. "In spite of its nickname, the Sunshine State looks awfully cloudy for Obama and may very well rain on his parade in November."
Polls this far out mean little, however. At this point four years ago, Obama trailed McCain by double digits in Florida, and many observers questioned whether he would even compete here if he won the Democratic nomination.
Last week the Times poll showed Romney leading Obama by 4 points in Florida, while an NBC News/Marist poll had Obama leading by 8 points. But independents and swing voters tend to decide elections in Florida, and they also tend to make up their minds late.
"I think the Republican National Committee learned from McCain when he put Florida in the safe column after he clinched the nomination," said Republican strategist Slater Bayliss. "I don't think anyone is going to put Florida in the safe column this time."
In the last five presidential elections, Republicans won twice, Democrats won twice, and 2000 was essentially a tie.
"If it's a close election nationally it may be within 1 point in Florida,'' said Tallahassee-based Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who ran Obama's Florida campaign in 2008. "When push comes to shove, if the race is that close, you can't underestimate the organizational advantage president Obama will have in Florida."
While few people are watching, the Obama organization every day is building the capacity for a massive volunteer-driven campaign built around an ever-growing number of teams reaching out to neighbors and friends. Whether it's Spanish language phone banks, nearly 200 State of the Union parties across the state, African-American supporters in beauty salons and barbershops, or the recruitment of volunteers via Facebook and Twitter, the campaign sets goals for everybody on the campaign and measures results constantly.
"You have to have a three-pronged approach. There's a voter registration component, there's a persuasion component, and there's a get-out-the-vote component," said Walker, the state director, dismissing the suggestion that Democrats won't be as enthusiastic as they were four years ago.
"I fundamentally disagree with the premise that there's a lack of passion. I wouldn't be seeing the reports that come across my desk each day, and the number of volunteer team leaders we have and the number of core team members we have if there was an enthusiasm problem."
Team Obama rewrote the grass roots campaign playbook for winning Florida four years ago, but the approach in 2012 is considerably different. Not only have the technology and ability to organize on social media advanced, but in an ever-changing state like Florida, the electorate and the avenues of opportunity have shifted as well.
Schale, for instance, pointed to three Orlando area counties with fast-rising Puerto Rican populations. In 1996, Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties made up about 7.4 of the statewide vote, and while winning the state comfortably, Bill Clinton lost those three counties by 12,000 votes. In 2008, those counties made up about 9.2 percent of the statewide vote and gave Obama a 100,000-plus-vote margin of victory.
Obama has a several paths for winning the needed 270 electorate votes without winning Florida, but no Republican since Calvin Coolidge has won the presidency without winning Florida.
Brett Doster, who ran Romney's successful primary campaign this year, expects Republicans to be much better prepared to compete in Florida, but he holds no illusions about the strength of the Obama campaign.
"I don't by any stretch of the imagination think it's going to be an easy campaign for Romney," he said. "Obama is going to have a tougher time than he had it last time, and I think Romney's the guy to make it tougher. But they're going to pull out all the stops to win here, and this is going to be battleground central."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]