President Obama has regained the lead over Mitt Romney in Florida, a crucial swing state that has seen a drop in unemployment.
Two polls released this month give Obama the edge in Florida, which has the third-most electoral votes of any state in the presidential election.
Winning Florida would give Obama a large share of the swing-state delegates he would need to hold the White House, if voting patterns from the 2008 election carry into 2012.
The president will likely need to win about half the electoral votes in 12 battleground states — Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New Hampshire — if he is to secure a second term.
The president won all of those states in 2008, and has been trending upwards in Florida in 2012.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll released this week, Obama leads GOP front-runner Mitt Romney 49 percent to 42 percent in Florida. The two were tied at 45 percent in January, according to the same poll, and Romney led the president 47 percent to 40 percent last September.
Obama’s favorability ratings in Florida have also improved, with 51 percent telling Quinnipiac they have a favorable view of the president, compared to 44 percent unfavorable. In January, those numbers were reversed, at 45 percent favorable and 50 percent unfavorable.
A survey from conservative polling outlet Rasmussen also gives Obama the edge over Romney in Florida, 46 percent to 43 percent. Romney led the same poll last November by 4 percent.
Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, says the reversal is predominantly due to an improving economy. The Quinnipiac poll found that the top issues for Florida voters are the economy, with 90 percent calling it “extremely important” or “very important,” and unemployment, with 81 percent saying the same.
While 68 percent of Floridians said they believed the country was still in a recession, 57 percent said they believed the economy was beginning to recover.
“The economy is turning around,” MacManus said. “I have graphics that show over time that the president’s favorability goes up every time there’s even a glimmer of improvement in the economy.”
Florida’s unemployment rate remains well above the national average of 8.3 percent, but has fallen at a quick pace recently, from 10.6 percent last summer to 9.3 percent in February.
In addition, a Bloomberg Economic Evaluation released on Friday put Florida in the top 10 states for economic growth for the fourth quarter of 2011, in part because of a drop in mortgage delinquencies — a sign that the Sunshine State’s housing market might finally have turned a corner after being among the hardest hit by the 2008 housing crisis.
Romney will have his work cut out for him if he hopes to reclaim the lead he held in Florida only a few months ago, and the drawn out GOP primary isn’t helping, according to MacManus.
“The Obama campaign has been up and kicking here for a long time,” MacManus said. “Republicans are just getting started.”
Aubrey Jewett, the assistant director of Political Science at the University of Central Florida, said the long Republican primary explains the reversal in the polls more than the gains in the economy.
“I think it’s two-fold,” he said. “The economy has gotten a little bit better, but I think it has more to do with Romney’s numbers being driven down. We’ve seen Romney’s popularity declining because of the nasty Republican primary.”
While Florida is one of the few states where Romney enjoys a positive favorability rating, he and the president have been moving in opposite directions in 2012.
Romney logged his worst favorability numbers to date in Florida this month, with 41 percent favorable and 36 percent unfavorable. While that’s still in the black, in January, when he won the state’s GOP primary, Romney’s favorability was at 47 percent favorable, versus 29 percent unfavorable.
“This prolonged primary has been damaging [to Romney],” MacManus said. “It’s why you’ve seen major Republican Party leaders like [former Florida Gov. Jeb] Bush and [Florida Sen. Marco] Rubio come out and say, ‘Let’s move this on.’ The last thing they want is a headline saying that Obama is in the lead in Florida as the Republican convention hits Tampa.”
MacManus also pointed to the attention paid to social issues in the Republican primary — and particularly those that involve women, such as birth control and abortion — as a reason the Republican candidates have faded in Florida.
While Romney carried women strongly in his victory against his then-lead challenger Newt Gingrich in the Florida primary, Obama leads Romney 52 percent to 38 percent among women voters in the state.
Obama also holds a healthy lead among another key demographic in Florida, Hispanics, topping Romney 54 percent to 40 percent with those voters. The Latino vote could eventually tilt even more in favor of Democrats, McManus said, because the younger generation of Cubans is shifting away from the older generation’s tendency to vote Republican.
“The oldest generation of Cubans have historically gone Republican because they focus on foreign policy,” MacManus said. “That’s not so much the case among younger Cubans, who tend to focus on domestic issues. That’s what Republicans are worried about — Florida’s younger Cuban voters are attracted to Obama when the issue is the economy.”
Of course, Republicans could have an ace in the hole in Rubio, the rising GOP star, son of Cuban immigrants, and potential vice presidential candidate.
“He’s popular in Florida,” MacManus said. “He could do a lot in terms of mobilizing the Latino vote, because they’re not strongly in support of one party or another. It’s soft support in favor of Democrats.”
MacManus also noted that there’s a “path-breaking element” to a potential Rubio vice presidency, in which Florida Latinos would be drawn to his ethnicity, similar to how Obama was able to mobilize the youth vote in 2008.
Obama only won Florida by 1 percentage point in 2008, or about 200,000 out of the 8 million ballots cast, so a swing among any small voting bloc could sway the outcome.
Despite the president’s lead in the polls, MacManus said not to expect anything different from Florida in 2012.
“It’s going to be close,” she said.