Can Obama win? 

And will Tampa Bay voters be a decisive factor?

Before Barack Obama hit the stage in Ybor City’s Centennial Park last week, a series of speakers — including former Governor Charlie Crist and Congresswoman Kathy Castor — urged, no, cajoled the 8,500 in attendance to go out and vote before Election Day.

”What you need to do every day,” an energized Crist told the throng, “is talk to your friends, talk to your family members, talk to your students, people you work with. Talk to everybody and take nothing for granted. Make sure you encourage everybody to come out. Make a call to a friend.”

Although early voting began just Saturday, Team Obama has worked hard over the past month in Florida (and other states) to get supporters to request and complete absentee ballots in unprecedented numbers.

It’s part of Team Obama’s vaunted ground game — the factor that will make the difference in re-electing the president next week, according to members of Obama For America(OFA).

But will that be enough? Can a campaign that touts itself as the most cutting-edge ever make history again? Even when the incumbent is saddled by a slow-growth economy, and the novelty of electing the first black president is no longer enough reason by itself to bring in voters?

There can be no doubt that the trajectory of the election changed after what Democrats call the Debacle in Denver, when President Obama phoned in his first debate performance as a nationwide crowd of over 70 million people watched.

Even though polls showed that the president won the second and third debates, particularly shining in the foreign policy exchange in Boca Raton, they didn’t have the same impact as the Rocky Mountain High encounter, which conservatives said exposed the president badly. (Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote, “People saw for the first time an Obama that they may have heard about on the radio or in a newspaper but had never seen. … and they didn’t like what they saw, and that would linger.”)

University of Central Florida Political Science Professor Aubrey Jewett says that if Romney does win next week, it will be because of what happened in Denver.

“It would be considered a game changer,” he says, challenging the conventional wisdom among most political scientists that save for a gaffe, debates rarely impact national elections.

Political analysts for the past year have compared this contest to 1980 or 2004, but what about a third alternative? What about 2000?

No, this election won’t repeat that once-in-a-lifetime 36-day recount in Florida. But could it end with the losing candidate winning a majority of the popular vote, but losing the Electoral College, à la Bush v. Gore? You might remember that the Democrat that year won over 500,000 more popular votes than Bush, but lost by 4 electoral votes, 271-267.

Depending on his positive margins, especially in parts of the Deep South, there is a possible scenario in which Romney takes the popular vote, but Barack Obama wins the Electoral College, and thus the White House.

Though the so-called ground game was certainly written about in the past two general presidential elections, it has never received more attention in the U.S. press pre-election before now — and it could be how Obama threads the needle to get to 270 electoral votes this time around.

Daryl Paulson, professor emeritus of political science at USFSP, says that though Florida is trending Romney, the big unknown is the power of each candidate’s political organization, which he says give Obama a leg up. He says the GOP has lost many of the advantages the party had in Florida back in 2000 & 2004.

“They lost some of that in 2008, and I don’t think they’ve recovered this year. Obama has 100-plus offices in the state of Florida. That’s more than any presidential candidate has had, and they clearly have the best campaign organization in the state.”

The emphasis on the early vote is all about getting that “sporadic” or “low-intensity voter,” in the words of Obama campaign manager Jim Messina.

“Early vote is not taking a final universe of voters and only changing the day they vote,” he told reporters on a nationwide conference call last week. “If that’s what we were doing, that would be concerning. What early vote does is help us get out low-propensity voters, voters called sporadic voters, which broadens our universe and frees up more Get Out The Vote resources later and especially on Election Day. And let’s be very clear, more sporadic Obama voters are voting than sporadic Republicans in the battleground states. And that is both a sign of enthusiasm but also organization strength.”

It’s not hyperbolic to say that the battle for the I-4 corridor, and specifically for Hillsborough County, could decide the election. Since 1960, the region has voted for the winning ticket in every presidential election except one.

Hillsborough County Republican Party Chairman Art Wood says he’s devoid of any anxiety about the polls because he’s way too focused on putting “maximum energy” into getting Romney and other local Republicans elected.

But he maintains that there is definitely more coordination between the candidate and the local party than in 2008.

“That cooperation didn’t exist four years ago,” he says. “It was very limited, and that was a shame. If we’re going to go door to door, why not have the energy for walking not only for Romney, but for whatever candidate is running a competitive campaign in that precinct?” And Wood says the Hillsborough County Republican Party has set “national records” with the number of doors they’ve knocked on this campaign.

Jeremy Bird, national field director for Obama For America, says that the Democrats’ ground game in Florida is “significantly stronger” than it was in 2008.

One of the things that OFA is banking on is the increase in the universe of voters inclined to vote for Obama — specifically, Hispanic and Caribbean-American voters, and a decrease (by 1 percent) in the number of new white voters since 2008.

The Secretary of State’s office says 190,000 Hispanic voters have registered in the past four years, 50 percent as Independents, 41 percent as Democrats, and just 9 percent as Republicans.

One of those new Hispanic voters is a 29-year-old Venezuelan native named Lori (she didn’t want to give CL her full name). Lori has lived in Florida for years, but only became a citizen recently. She said in Ybor City last week that women’s rights are her biggest concern in this election, and she chooses Obama.

Although most polls show independents going strongly toward Romney, some voters who supported John McCain are now supporting Obama, like Denise Diaz. “So many people are saying he didn’t get anything done. No, no, no, he’s gotten a lot done,” she said last week after Obama’s Ybor speech.

Tampa resident Carolyn Gribaldi lauds his healthcare reform bill as a good move in the direction of controlling costs. “Nobody can afford to be sick, nobody can afford insurance, and nobody can afford to be critically ill without going completely bankrupt, so that’s one of the big factors that’s never talked about,” she said.

But who will the undecideds vote for? Last month, as Sun City Center resident Linda McPheron waited in line to see Vice President Joe Biden, she told CL that she voted for Obama in 2008 but doesn’t think either candidate will be able to do much with the coming Congress. “I think [Romney] has some very good ideas, but then again I think Obama does, too. He wasn’t able to implement them with the Congress the way it is. I don’t know how much that’s going to change in the next four years, but that’s always a possibility.”

Last week President Obama released a 20-page brochure detailing his plans for a new four-year term. But Tampa Democratic political consultant Kevin Thurman says voters at this stage aren’t really looking for new plans.

“I think it’s a completely naïve view of our political system to assume that the president needs to put out a detailed plan,” he says, adding the same about Mitt Romney. “I think the media lives in a world where they think voters look at things on an issue basis, and make decisions at a calculated level.” On the contrary, the undecideds are what he euphemistically calls “low-information voters.”

In any event, the longest, most expensive presidential election in U.S. history will soon be over, and so will the ads. Last week the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political broadcast ads aired throughout the country, said 7,992 ads had been aired in the Tampa Bay area supporting Obama or Romney through the first three weeks of October on broadcast or basic cable. Those end on November 7.

Additional reporting by Arielle Stevenson.

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