A big reason John McCain lost Florida in 2008 was that his presidential campaign arrived there for the general election dressed in red when the invitation said purple. Florida, which has the nation’s largest cache of independent voters, tends to prefer more moderate presidential politics. But Senator McCain, with right-wing running mate Sarah Palin in tow—at one Florida rally she accused Democratic candidate Barack Obama of “working with terrorists”—blew into the peninsula after Labor Day that year with a strident conservative edge. It ignored the advice of Florida GOP leaders and even pushed women in Republican bastions like Sarasota County into Obama’s camp.
In 2012, Mitt Romney seems to have learned from McCain’s mistakes in the nation’s largest swing state—turning September poll deficits of as many as nine points in Florida into a slim but tenacious lead over President Obama. Romney sounded more conservative during most of this year’s Republican primaries. But he morphed back into The Pragmatic Massachusetts Governor during his triumphant first debate with President Obama on Oct. 3, and he’s been lavishing Moderate Mitt on the Sunshine State ever since, starting with an Oct. 5 rally in St. Petersburg, where he offered emotional personal anecdotes. Women voters there have warmed to his softer rhetoric on contraception and abortion, and even Florida’s non-Cuban Latinos, especially in the all-important I-4 Corridor between Tampa and Orlando, are listening to Romney’s promise to forge the comprehensive immigration reform that Obama pledged but has not delivered.
As a result, say campaign officials, those constituencies are focusing more on the economic issues that favor Romney, whose Florida momentum has alarmed the Obama campaign with less than two weeks to go before the Nov. 6 election. Absentee ballots for Romney, for example, so far look to outnumber those for Obama. “This is a very economically conscious state, and it’s been hit hard by home foreclosures, job losses and the President’s failed policies,” says Brett Doster, president of Front Line Strategies in Tallahassee and a senior Romney adviser in Florida. “It has more women entrepreneurs than most states, and the Hispanic unemployment rate in the I-4 Corridor is north of 16%. Romney clearly has more intensity going for him here now, not just with his base but in his outreach to independents as well.”
Romney, despite the help of Republican Senator Marco Rubio, has a tougher row to hoe with Florida’s non-Cuban Hispanics: Obama won 57% of Florida Latinos in 2008. But Romney’s gains with female voters there have been stunning. A Quinnipiac University/CBS/New York Times poll in late September had Obama ahead with Florida women by a 58%-to-39% margin; a new CNN/ORC International survey shows Romney narrowing that gender gulf to two points, 47% to 49% for Obama. That poll, taken just before the two candidates’ third and final debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday night, has Romney ahead of Obama in Florida, albeit by just one point, 49% to 48%—a statistical tie that evokes the disputed 2000 presidential election, which George W. Bush won thanks to a victory margin in Florida of a mere 537 votes.
Though Ohio is widely considered the make-or-break state this year, Romney will have a hard time winning the presidency without taking Florida and its 29 electoral votes. Right now his chances look surprisingly good. Although many of Florida’s large cohort of seniors may be wary of his voucher plan for Medicare, two major newspapers, the Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which backed Obama in 2008, have endorsed Romney. A big difference from 2008 is that national Republican forces are better clued in to the peninsula’s political realities. The hotly contested GOP primaries got Romney off to a slower start in Florida, which allowed Obama to spend millions putting boots on the ground and ads on the air defining Romney as a right-wing plutocrat. But Romney’s Florida director, Molly Donlin, has built an apparatus that shrewdly emphasizes the independent-rich I-4 Corridor—she planted the state campaign’s headquarters in Tampa, in fact, instead of Tallahassee—and has significantly beefed up the local volunteer army.
The Obama campaign should have expected the Florida race to tighten by this point—as presidential contests there invariably do. Though Obama in 2008 became the first northern Democrat to win the state since Franklin Roosevelt, he did it by only a 51%-to-48.5% margin. Still, he won 56% of Florida women and defeated McCain among Florida independents, who account for a fifth of the state’s electorate, by seven points. One of those independent supporters this time around is former Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who bolted the Republican Party two years ago during his failed bid for the U.S. Senate.
Crist, whose 2008 advice to national Republican bosses not to throw so much red meat around Florida went largely unheeded—rather than emphasize environmentally sound offshore oil drilling, for example, they scampered around the state screaming “Drill, baby, drill!”—has endorsed Obama and is actively campaigning for him across Florida. Crist says he’s confident a final push by the President, whose economic stimulus plan he backed and has credited with helping Florida endure the earlier depths of the recession, will give him the state. “Florida is as purple a state as it gets,” says Crist, who some expect to join the Democratic Party and run for Governor in 2014. “In the end Florida voters won’t forget how extremist and ‘severely conservative’ Romney went in the primaries, no matter how much he tries to Etch-a-Sketch out of it now.”
A big question for Obama is whether he can afford to lose Florida, and if so, whether he should focus harder on Ohio. For the moment, though, he’s campaigning in Florida as if it means as much as Ohio does, a reminder of the mesmerizing hold the Sunshine State has on modern presidential candidates. Last weekend, Vice President Joe Biden told Obama campaign workers in Orlando, “[If] we win Florida, this is all history, man.” And history suggests both sides better keep their purple on.