“Fiscal conservatism tends to be the common ingredient over the last number of cycles. That definitely trumps the social issues,” Florida Republican strategist Adam Goodman said. “I think Romney will play very well here. People are going to like his business experience.”
MORE SCIENCE THAN ART
In truth, Democrats who see Obama’s 2008 win here as the start of a trend and Republicans who see it as an aberration may both have it wrong. Obama’s 2008 campaign in Hillsborough mixed art and science like never before. The art—a resonant message promising better times delivered by a fresh-faced candidate who connected with wide swaths of voters—is something that can’t be replicated in 2012. An unemployment rate above 8 percent, a trillion-dollar budget deficit, and the slings and arrows of three-plus years of presidential fortunes trumps hope and change.
“This is a campaign that can’t find a campaign theme. That says something,” said Darryl Paulson, a retired University of South Florida political-science professor. “I think it will be very difficult for Obama to repeat his performance from 2008.”
Still, calling Obama’s victory in Hillsborough an anomaly ignores the science—the unprecedented amount of money and shoe leather and the know-how invested in the Tampa area, where his state campaign was headquartered. After years of Democrats playing to the party faithful in South Florida, Obama’s campaign charted a new course by targeting the middle-of-the-road voters in the middle of the state. He made more visits and aired more ads in the homestretch of the campaign in the Tampa Bay media market, which includes Hillsborough and surrounding counties, than any other part of the state.
“The demographics mean there are going to be more base supporters for Democrats to turn out, but you can’t forget that Florida is won in the middle by voters who are not offended by either political party,” said Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who masterminded Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida. “The recipe for winning Hillsborough is similar to the recipe for winning the state and winning the country: increase black and Hispanic turnout, increase youth turnout, and persuade independent voters. Pull the legs out of any one of those, and you’re toast.”
Obama could do it again. Schale crunched the numbers and found that Hispanic voters, who were 11 percent of the county’s electorate in 2008, now make up 13 percent. No wonder the Obama campaign is airing a new Spanish-language television ad featuring a Tampa Bay campaign volunteer. The headquarters has returned to Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, one of 26 offices—and counting—across the state. An office in Panama City slated to open on Saturday will be No. 27.
Romney has zero offices in the state; his three makeshift quarters from the January primary are long closed. The recently anointed presumptive nominee is only now turning his attention to Florida, although the state and national parties have started laying the groundwork for his campaign.
The president’s advantage looks even bigger when one considers that he did not start putting together his 2008 campaign in Florida until June. Obama had been boycotting the state because its early presidential primary flouted national-party rules.
This cycle, Obama essentially started building his reelection campaign under the auspices of the Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America project after he took office in 2009. Ever since he officially launched his reelection bid one year ago, volunteers have participated in thousands of phone banks, voter-registration drives, canvasses, and house parties. It all adds up to a sweeping grassroots network in which the campaign is constantly “building capacity” and recruiting new “neighborhood team leaders.”
“I have never seen a ground game like the one Obama put up in Florida. It was masterful … and they never left,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. “By relentlessly organizing, they have built a firewall.”
But unlike in 2008, when Obama outspent McCain by more than 3-to-1 in Florida, Republican super PACs could outgun him in 2012. And this time, instead of running with the winds of the outgoing Bush administration at his back, Obama is facing the headwinds of a punishing economy. Unemployment in Hillsborough County in February, the most recent month for which data are available, was 9 percent. That’s higher than the national average of 8.3 percent, although lower than the 11.8 percent high in Hillsborough on Obama’s watch in July 2010. When the president took office, county unemployment was 8.9 percent.
While the jobs forecast is improving, the real-estate market is still in the tank. Core-Logic, a data-analysis firm, reported a 12.4 percent foreclosure rate in Hillsborough and three surrounding counties in January, compared with 12.1 percent in the state and 3.4 percent nationwide. The foreclosure inventory is bigger than when Obama took office because property values have yet to recover, leaving increasing numbers of homeowners under water, anchored to heavy mortgages.