In a county with higher unemployment and foreclosure rates than the national average, issues like gas prices, not gay marriage, are expected to motivate voters in 2012. Romney’s moderate record on social issues such as abortion—a liability in primaries dominated by Christian conservatives—could be an asset for him in the general election, along with his business experience. Most of the Hispanic voters here are Puerto Rican and Cuban-American, for whom immigration policy is of interest but not a priority. That means Romney has a better shot at drawing Spanish-speaking voters in Hillsborough County than he may have elsewhere.
Romney will also have the advantage of campaigning in a state where the political establishment is solidly Republican. Of the six statewide officeholders in Florida, only one, Sen. Bill Nelson, is a Democrat. While Gov. Scott’s ratings are even lower than Obama’s in Florida, more-popular and dynamic figures such as Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush will serve as important ambassadors for the GOP nominee. Rubio is considered a top contender for the vice presidential nomination, and he has already taken a star turn with Romney by campaigning recently in another battleground state, Pennsylvania. Bush released a statement criticizing Obama’s trade policy in advance of his recent speech at the Port of Tampa.
But Romney won’t need surrogates to show him the way around Florida. He has been campaigning in the state since February 2007, when Florida was poised to schedule its earliest primary in history and Romney was launching his first White House bid. He came in second in the 2008 primary with 31 percent of the vote, 5 percentage points behind McCain. Romney captured roughly the same share of the vote in Hillsborough County. But this year, he garnered 48 percent of the vote in Hillsborough in the Jan. 31 primary, surpassing his 46 percent average statewide.
“The voter in the I-4 corridor tends to be focused on issues of immediacy and what’s going on nationally with the economy,” said Republican consultant Brett Doster, who led Bush’s 2004 reelection bid and Romney’s 2012 primary campaign in Florida. “When you’ve got a guy like Romney who is a proven job creator juxtaposed against a guy who said he would get unemployment down to 8 percent and it’s hovering above that, those things matter.”
Doster partly attributed George W. Bush’s win in Hillsborough after the 2001 terrorist attacks to the substantial population of active and retired military. The headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base, is just south of Tampa. Via satellite from the base, Bush offered troops around the world an upbeat assessment of the war in Iraq in June 2004. The year before, he invited country-music star Toby Keith to perform there. “You’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.,” Keith belted out to a cheering crowd.
But national-security concerns were not running as high by November 2008, and McCain was forced to defend Bush’s stewardship of a flailing economy and increasingly unpopular war.
In the meantime, Hillsborough’s makeup had been changing. David Dent, an associate journalism professor at New York University, has launched a website dedicated to counties like Hillsborough that voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004 but went for Obama in 2008. Nationwide, 272 counties fit the BushObamaAmerica.com profile. Although some similarities with nationwide averages on race and income can be drawn when all of the counties’ populations are grouped together, the makeup of the individual counties varies widely. Some are home to growing minority populations; others are overwhelmingly white.
“Hillsborough is clearly one of the Bush-Obama counties where a tilt in diversity helped produce the win, and the question is whether those ingredients are still ripe enough, given the current economic climate,” Dent said.
How closely divided is Hillsborough? Of the 1.95 million votes cast in presidential elections since 1992, Republican nominees won only about 14,000 more than Democratic nominees. Another nugget dug up by Schale, the Democratic strategist: The outcome in the Tampa Bay market has run within 2 percentage points of the statewide result in every presidential election since 1992.
Florida’s critical importance to the Obama campaign was as clear as black and white, in a weekly schedule scrawled on a dry erasable board in mid-April at the campaign headquarters in Ybor City. Monday was a call with reporters to tout Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the rich. On Tuesday, the president outlined the aforementioned plan in Boca Raton. Michelle Obama spoke in Jacksonville on Thursday, and Obama stopped at the port on Friday. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, also made public appearances in Florida last month.
Romney has not yet made a trip to Florida since he emerged as the presumptive nominee, and he has only the bare bones of a campaign on the ground. He won the Florida primary in January mostly by turning in two strong debate performances and quashing Newt Gingrich’s momentum out of South Carolina by unleashing a torrent of attack ads, many of which were aired by the super PAC Restore Our Future—another weapon that the Romney campaign will have on its side. His fledgling Florida team also showed its potential with an impressive absentee-ballot program that banked tens of thousands of votes before the primary election.
Can Romney ultimately match Obama in organizational power here? There’s no reason to think he can’t. The race is a dead heat, and Obama was even less organized in Florida than Romney at this time four years ago.
“We’re not going to be outworked,” said Martinez, the Romney spokesman and a veteran of Rubio’s successful U.S. Senate campaign in 2010. “You’re going to see an aggressive effort in the state of Florida comparable to the successful Republican efforts you’ve seen in the state before.”
Few, however, are underestimating the difficulty of dislodging a president in a place so evenly divided. Over a mug of coffee in his cottage-like office, Republican strategist Goodman proudly pointed to framed signs from recent winning state campaigns: Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford. But this one is different.
“Anyone who thinks that Florida, which tends to be reliably Republican, will be anything less than a firefight in November is ignoring history,” Goodman said. “All hands will be on deck.”
Goodman called the GOP’s selection of Hillsborough to host the national convention “huge” and said that the publicity surrounding the four-day event could easily boost Romney’s popularity enough to make a difference in November. But there is little evidence that the location of a convention translates into a win; in fact, the last four Republican nominees all lost the states that hosted the national conventions: California in 1996, Pennsylvania in 2000, New York in 2004, and Minnesota in 2008. Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, noted on the school’s website that over the past half-century, there was only one instance in which a state hosting the Republican convention flipped after voting for the Democratic nominee four years earlier.
That was in 1968, when Richard Nixon won Florida.
This article appears in the May 5, 2012, edition of National Journal.