Obama, Republicans prepare for 2012 Florida election showdown

In the 17 months between now and Election Day 2012, innumerable theories, some esoteric, will be advanced about how President Obama can get reelected. Math provides a starker answer: Win Florida.

Obama in 2008 carried nine states that former President George W. Bush won four years previously. If Obama loses eight of those battlegrounds and holds Florida — and the other states remain unchanged — he will secure another four years in the Oval Office.

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To say the presidential campaign is already under way in Florida might be an exaggeration — but not by much. Last week, Obama paid his third visit of the year to the Sunshine State. And no sooner had he left than putative Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney arrived.

Florida’s unemployment rate is 10.6 percent. This figure, significantly above the national average, forms the keystone of the GOP’s argument to eject Obama.

“President Obama has had over two years [in office] and the economy is continuing to shrink,” said Trey Stapleton, the Florida Republican Party’s communications director. “We’ve just had a lot of rhetoric on this issue.”

Stapleton’s Democratic counterpart, Eric Jotkoff, makes the case for the defense: “I think Floridians recognize that President Obama has done everything in his power to jump-start the economy,” he said. “His policies have stabilized our economy and jobs are being created.”

It seems premature to pen Obama’s political obituary in Florida based on job numbers alone. A Quinnipiac University poll last month indicated that 51 percent of Floridians approved of Obama’s job performance, while 43 percent disapproved.

But that finding likely reflected the “Osama bin Laden bounce” that benefited Obama in the wake of the killing of the al Qaeda leader. The same organization the month before had recorded an almost mirror-image result: 44 percent approval and 52 percent disapproval.

Obama could, receive aid from an unexpected quarter. The victory of Republican Rick Scott in last year’s gubernatorial election in Florida was seen at the time as a Tea Party triumph. Today, with an approval rating measured by one recent poll at 29 percent, Scott could well be the most unpopular governor in the nation.

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Scott’s popularity is in the doldrums for several reasons, including his ardor for budget cuts, a decision to decline more than $2 billion in federal funding for a high-speed rail link and a personality seen by critics as gratuitously aggressive.

Democrats say Scott’s policies have given Floridians a taste of a Republican governing agenda, sharpening the idea that the 2012 election will not be simply a referendum on Obama.

“[Scott’s] record and his governing style underline that this election will not be about how much you like Barack Obama,” Democratic strategist David Beattie asserted. “It will be about competing visions of government.”

Florida’s population has a higher proportion of those over the age of 65 than any other state, so the debate over Medicare will be intense.

Concern that Obama’s healthcare reform law would negatively affect Medicare is widely believed to have fueled Republican gains in the midterm elections. But now Democrats argue with undisguised glee that Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) plan to replace the current system with what has been called a voucher program might be a boon to the president’s chances — even though only people under the age of 55 would be affected.

“By ending Medicare as we know it, Republicans are trying to impose their extreme agenda,” said Jotkoff. “Floridians are literally up in arms over the Ryan plan. They flatly reject it.”

Not so fast, counters Florida Republican strategist Brett Doster, who served at the top levels of the 2000 and 2004 Bush-Cheney campaigns in the state: “I think it is far too simplistic to suggest that seniors will vote for President Obama because they are nervous about Medicare being cut. Seniors are also very fiscally conservative. They have the feeling that government spending is out of control.”

Seniors collectively form one of the tiles in Florida’s demographic mosaic. Hispanics account for 22.5 percent of the state’s population, according to the 2010 Census, but their voting behavior is far from uniform.

Aside from the traditionally Republican-leaning Cuban-American population, there is also a large and growing Puerto Rican community, which is especially concentrated along the politically vital “I-4 corridor” that stretches across the state’s midsection.

Obama’s visit to Puerto Rico last week was a clear play for that vote. His speech in the capital, San Juan, was the first such presidential address there since John F. Kennedy visited in 1961.

“Puerto Ricans are swing voters,” said Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic strategist who served as the Obama campaign’s state director in 2008. “They are not as Democratic as Mexican voters in Arizona, for example. But they tend to skew our way. And, from what I’m hearing, people are pretty pleased about the trip.”

The Jewish vote is also being scrutinized for signs of change. There has been speculation that Jewish voters could turn away from Obama because of his policies on the Middle East, and Israel in particular.

The recent appointment of Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz as Democratic National Committee chairwoman, however, could be seen as an attempt to shore up the Jewish vote against any slippage. Wasserman Schultz is herself Jewish, and a stalwart supporter of both Israel and Obama.

Jewish Floridians would not necessarily have to vote for the Republican presidential nominee in overwhelming numbers to affect the election’s outcome, however — they merely would have to stay home. The same is true for many groups — younger voters, African- Americans and Hispanics — who propelled Obama to his 2008 Sunshine State victory.

Enthusiasm for the president — or the intensity of other voters’ hopes to replace him — will undoubtedly be crucial. Doster believes it could be determinative: “It is pretty clear to me that Obama has lost his [2008] coalition,” he asserted.

“His best chance of winning Florida is igniting a supernatural turnout of his base, and hoping that will make up for his loss of support among independent voters. But I think that [kind of turnout] is unlikely.”

The Obama camp, naturally, disagrees. And, in any case, every prediction about Florida is liable to be undermined by the peculiar volatility of the current political moment.

Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, argued that the nebulous voter discontent seen across the nation is especially pronounced there. It is being buttressed by several different factors, she said, from the shock engendered by Florida’s economic malaise to Rick Scott’s performance to “a distrust of government generally.”

How this sense of ennui shakes out, she predicted, will be central to the 2012 result. Some groups could go to the polls in greater numbers than usual. Others may collectively shrug their shoulders and stay home.

“The crucial thing is going to be figuring out which group is in which category,” MacManus said