The road to the White House leads through wild, wonderful and weird Florida

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
The Ticket

JUPITER, Fla.—Republicans do not mince words when discussing the importance of Florida. This is the state that could determine whether the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, moves into the White House in January or spends Inauguration Day contemplating What Could Have Been on the balcony of his beach home in Southern California.

"Florida's a must-win for Mitt Romney. This is it," said Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. "We have to win Florida."

It's not quite the same in Ohio, where GOP state operatives decline to use such dire language and where polls showed Romney struggling before last week's presidential debate. An Ohio loss would make matters difficult, yes, but Romney could lose the Buckeyes and still beat Obama.

But that's not the case here.

Arguably one of the most fascinating and (depending on whom you ask) frustrating hotbeds of American politics, Florida continues to live up to its reputation of mercurial voters and questionable electoral practices (hanging chads notwithstanding). The state swings and flips harder than a hammock left out in a hurricane, and this year should be no exception. Of all the hotly contested battleground states, Florida is the biggest get, offering 29 of the 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the presidency.

The Sunshine State supported Richard Nixon in 1960, voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and then went back to Nixon in 1968 and 1972. Floridians handed Jimmy Carter its electoral votes four years later. The Republicans locked it down during an impressive stretch through the years of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, but then it reverted right back to blue when Bill Clinton ran for re-election in 1996. Four years later, the up-for-grabs swing state stole the spotlight. With some help from hanging chads and the Supreme Court, George W. Bush carried it by a nose and held on through his second election. In 2008, Obama won the state back for the Democrats.

As of this writing, before polls can reflect a possible debate bump, statewide surveys suggest a dead heat. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll conducted Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 shows Romney and Obama tied. The latest Florida state poll reflects a recent surge of support for Romney, who trailed by several points in surveys taken through September.

All politics is local

In the past few years, Floridians have veered decidedly Republican at the state and local level. The GOP currently controls the state Legislature, the state Senate and the governor's mansion. In 2010, voters here enthusiastically sent Republican Marco Rubio to the U.S. Senate, and 19 of the 25 House members in the Florida delegation are Republicans.

But Romney faces serious hurdles before he can assume a Sunshine State victory and focus his resources elsewhere. In recent months Obama has all but locked up support from Hispanic voters, a group that comprises about 23 percent of the Florida population. To make up for this deficit, Romney may be forced to make inroads elsewhere. Among the elderly, who flock in droves to Florida—and to voting booths—Romney appears to be standing strong. However, his decision to tap Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as a running mate risked shaving off a few points with the Blue Hair Bloc.

Regionally, Romney's strongest base of support lies in the southwest part of the state, where thousands of retirees from the conservative Midwest flock to retire. Obama is more popular along the eastern coastline, where most of the snowbirds and retirees hail from the more reliably liberal Northeast. Romney is expected to dominate the northern part of the state along the panhandle, which culturally is more like the South than South Florida. But, still, he can't take the north for granted. Bush carried that region solidly in 2000 and 2004, but Obama made great strides to narrow the gap in 2008. If Florida is going to be a close race, Romney cannot afford the same level of support as John McCain in those areas. He must dominate.

Of course, Obama has his own Florida issues. The voting demographics are not the same as they were when he defeated McCain four years ago. Today, there are 141,000 fewer registered Democrats and about 74,000 more Republicans registered in Florida than when Obama was first elected. Registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans by 443,166 here, but the gap could make all the difference in this game of inches.

The battle for Florida, then, lies in the heart of the state. Commonly referred to as the "I-4 corridor," the region stretches 130 miles from Daytona Beach through Orlando and on to Tampa. It's the swingiest part of this swing state, chock-full of undecided voters who could determine the election's outcome. Voters in this region went for Bush in 2004, Obama in 2008 and now ... who knows?

'Anybody but Obama'

Two days before the first presidential debate, I drove across Alligator Alley, a flat strip of pavement in South Florida that connects the east and west coasts. Through pouring Florida rain—hurricane season doesn't end until about Thanksgiving—I traversed from bluish West Palm Beach to deep red Naples, the state's Republican epicenter. The Collier County Victory Center, the Romney headquarters and office for local GOP races, sits in an unobtrusive corner office building; that morning about 70 devoted Republican volunteers surrounded it in the parking lot, waiting in the rain. House Speaker John Boehner was visiting to stump for Romney and Trey Radel, a radio announcer running for the district's House seat. The crowd, mostly in their late 50s and 60s, waited patiently beneath colorful umbrellas.

Like so many other times this election cycle, I found that it's not Romney who inspires die-hards to stand in the soaking rain or spend afternoons phoning strangers with canned campaign lingo to solicit votes. The driving force behind these efforts is an aversion to Obama.

"This is the first time since I've become a U.S. citizen that I'm voting against the president rather than voting for somebody," said Maarten Heybroek, who was born in the Netherlands, but became naturalized at a young age.

Heybroek was standing next to his neighbor, Ray Bernier, who felt the same.

"People are so nervous and afraid of this election," Bernier said when asked what was inspiring voters to get involved. "I had to stop reading and watching TV. I couldn't sleep. It was just getting to be so emotional and I never felt that way in my life before."

"The enthusiasm," he said, "is because people are scared."

During the event, I asked several people why they were taking the time to help campaign. Obama's name always came up first. "Anybody but Obama," a refrain heard endlessly during the Republican primary race last year, was the catchphrase here.

When the speakers at the event finished their talks, the crowd filed into the small building. The Republican office was typical of a standard campaign workplace: pictures of famous Republicans on the wall, a whiteboard boasting the number of phone calls made since they opened shop, and rooms full of eager college-aged interns demonstrating how to make four phone calls at once. The mood was energetic and lively—the bathroom even had a strip of toilet paper bearing the president's likeness.

Running back and forth through the office was a busy-looking man named Frank Schwerin, the chairman of the Collier County Executive Committee. The ground-game operation this cycle is a tremendous improvement over the McCain campaign four years ago, he said. He pointed to the level of communication and coordination between the state party and the campaign, and his county's office had made an impressive number of phone calls in the county.

I asked what had changed in four years.

"Well, a good candidate," he said, just before a man nearby interrupted by shouting "and a bad president!"

"And a bad president," Schwerin said, "who didn't deliver on his promises. And I think people across the spectrum who want to end the incompetence."

He added: "But I think the main reason for the enthusiasm is because of the Ryan-Romney team."

Summoning the outsiders

The fieldwork paid for by the actual campaigns only tells part of the story. Both Obama and Romney rely heavily on activists who volunteer not for the official party arms, but for nonprofit advocacy groups that send thousands of foot soldiers into neighborhoods across the state armed with campaign literature.

On the right, one of the most prominent of these groups is Americans for Prosperity, a nationwide conservative activist network that has already spent tens of millions of dollars on television ads targeting the president and his policies. As Election Day grows closer, AFP is taking part of the fight from the air to the ground with a massive messaging effort.

This past weekend, the group sent in four busloads of activists from Georgia to knock on doors in the Orlando area; another bus came from Alabama to canvass in Tampa. Since those states are already a sure thing for the GOP nominee, these Southerners are, frankly, a little bored. At the end of the weekend, the out-of-staters distributed more than 100,000 anti-Obama door hangers along the I-4 corridor.

Efforts by groups like these, on the left and the right, won't cost the campaigns a penny. But it can create tension when the official party is looking for volunteers and the activist base is hanging out at the union hall or the local tea party headquarters.

"To some extent we probably compete for volunteers," said Slade O'Brien, AFP's Florida director. "The primary difference is this—these are people who see politics and the political parties as not the be-all end-all." Some volunteers view the activist groups as more pure—and possibly more effective—than the standard political parties.

Like the Republicans in Naples, the volunteers are certainly enthusiastic to help out, but not necessarily because of Romney, according to O'Brien.

"I'm not seeing overwhelming passion for Romney," he said. "What I am seeing is people absolutely scared to death about Obama. I'm not saying they don't like Romney. They're just like, 'We can't have four more years of that guy no matter what the alternative is.' That's why people don't go to the party, they come to us."

A Great Florida Undecided

As any swing state resident will tell you, living in a place where campaign volunteers constantly knock on your door and phone bank you with survey questions gets annoying.

In Florida, there is no escaping it.

On the Friday before the first presidential debate, my own Florida cellphone was inundated by three separate partisan robocalls asking a range of questions: Whom will I support? What's the most important issue to me? How would I rate the president? Every night, television viewing becomes a game of Escape the Political Ad. After watching just two hours of TV in north Palm Beach County on Monday night, I counted 21 political ads.

Three hours before the Wednesday presidential debate, a volunteer from the Obama campaign office in Pompano Beach called to see if I had made up my mind about which candidate I would support. (I'm a registered independent.) On the other end of the line, a nervous female voice told me she knew my age—which was weird—and asked if the president could count on my vote. I told her I still needed time to think about it.

"Really, you're undecided?" she said, sounding a bit surprised. "Are you watching the debates tonight? Have you gone onto any of the Web pages?" She went on to tell me that there was "factual, simple, easy-to-understand" information on Facebook and that I should scope it out. I told her I would, but that I wasn't convinced.

"I am not calling as a persuader, I'm calling just to get an idea—look it's not my thing," she said. "I'm a teacher but I'm not a persuader."

As far as the Obama and Romney campaigns are concerned, I'm still one of the Great Florida Undecideds. Which means the next day I can safely turn on my cellphone will be Nov. 7th.