Obama Campaign Detectives Hunt for Foreclosed Florida Voters

By day, Lynnette Acosta, a 34-year- old mother of two, is an information-technology manager in Orlando, Florida. By night, she’s a sleuth for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, scouring for potential voters.

In central Florida, that means knocking on doors in Hispanic neighborhoods with foreclosure rates as high as 30 percent, where once-registered Democrats have been evicted, their homes now owned by the bank. Volunteers walk house-to- house to determine the number of empty homes per precinct, then look for contact information for voters who once lived in them.

“It’s almost like playing detective, asking questions,” said Acosta, who is Puerto Rican and one of five campaign volunteers selected to join governors, senators and other officials serving as national co-chairs of the Obama campaign. “We take one door at a time, one person at a time.”

As Obama confronts a housing crisis that he’s acknowledged underestimating, his campaign is facing a different kind of foreclosure problem on the streets of Florida and other battleground states, where evictions have left holes in its voter lists. Volunteers like Acosta are central to the campaign’s effort to populate its databases with current addresses and working phone numbers to get out the vote.

Recreating Dynamic

A mix of strong support, demographic trends and record turnout among Hispanics in the Orlando area was pivotal to Obama’s 50.9 percent to 48.4 percent victory over Republican John McCain four years ago in Florida, say Obama allies. He’ll need to recreate that dynamic now to win the state’s 29 electoral votes, the biggest prize of the nine states Obama flipped from Republican red to Democratic blue four years ago.

“At least in central Florida, he’s got to be at least 66, 67, 68 percent,” among non-Cuban Hispanics, said Darren Soto, a Democratic state representative whose district includes parts of Osceola County, where the Puerto Rican population increased 138 percent in the last 10 years, according to U.S. Census data. “He is going to need to crush it in order to make sure to get to the levels he is going to need to take the state.”

In the 2008 presidential contest, Obama’s 204,577-vote victory margin in Florida can be partially explained by his performance in the Orlando area, where he won 80,464 more ballots than McCain. In the four surrounding counties -- Lake, Osceola, Orange and Seminole -- Obama picked up 138,075 more votes than Senator John Kerry did in 2004, when Kerry lost the state to President George W. Bush 52.1 percent to 47.1 percent.

Triple the Support

The challenge for Obama in winning Florida again, Soto said, can be seen in neighborhoods like Buenaventura Lakes, where he tripled the number of Democratic votes that were cast for Kerry in 2004.

Today, 9,763 of the 15,207 registered voters identify themselves as Hispanic, according to the Osceola supervisor of elections. One in every 131 housing units in the Buenaventura Lakes zip code was in foreclosure in May, five times higher than the national average and more than twice as high as the Florida rate, according to RealtyTrac Inc., an Irvine, California-based provider of foreclosure data. Over the last three years, 3,414 properties have had foreclosure filings in Buenaventura Lakes, almost 30 percent of the 12,033 housing units, according to RealtyTrac. Obama won the neighborhood 77 percent to 23 percent.

Hispanics were hurt more by foreclosures than other ethnic groups, at 11.9 percent for loans originated from 2004 to 2008, more than twice the rate of non-Hispanic whites, according to a report by the Center for Responsible Lending in Durham, North Carolina.

Tracking Voters

Obama is “going to have to be better than good at keeping track of folks,” said Soto, who also represents many of his constituents in foreclosure proceedings against banks.

While Obama’s campaign works to find voters who have been forced from their homes, his administration has struggled to help homeowners who remain in theirs. A year ago, he said that his administration has “had to revamp our housing program several times.”

When Obama unveiled his first plan for the housing crisis at the outset of his presidency, about one in five borrowers owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth. That number is essentially unchanged, with 24 percent of borrowers underwater in the first quarter of 2012, according to the real estate data firm CoreLogic Inc.

Home Construction

Beginning construction of U.S. homes rose more than forecast in June to the fastest rate in almost four years, indicating a brighter outlook for the residential real estate market, the Commerce Department reported today in Washington.

Addressing a Hispanic group in Orlando last month, Obama promoted his latest plan, which he unveiled in February, to ease refinancing requirements by levying a tax on financial companies that have more than $50 billion in assets. Congress hasn’t acted on the proposal.

“We need to give families in hard-hit housing markets like Florida and Nevada the chance to refinance,” he told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials on June 22.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who said during his party’s primaries that illegal immigrants should “self-deport,” has softened his appeal to Hispanic voters and focused his general election message on how Latinos have fared in the economy under Obama.

Hispanic Unemployment

“Hispanics have been hit disproportionately hard,” Romney said in his June 21 address to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando.

“While the national unemployment is still above 8 percent, and has been for 40 straight months, Hispanic unemployment is at 11 percent.”

Convincing Hispanics in central Florida that his housing prescriptions are working is a “daunting task,” said Soto, who campaigned with Obama in 2008. “He’s not quite yet there.”

That puts more pressure on Obama’s ground game.

To track voters who have moved away, campaign volunteers divide counties into neighborhoods, instead of precincts, and report voter contacts back to paid field organizers, who then update the campaign’s national database. Detective work can only carry the campaigns so far, said Jim Swan, the independent mayor of Kissimmee, the incorporated town that includes Buenaventura Lakes.

Obama Supporters

“If they don’t sign up to vote with the supervisor of elections, I don’t know where they are,” he said, as he motioned toward a house with an eviction notice on the front door. “About 20 percent of housing stock was tied up in foreclosure, somehow, someway.”

After they have found likely Obama supporters, the task for the campaign is to make sure they show up on Election Day, which presents yet another obstacle.

“We’re not in the business in turning the minds of the Republicans,” Acosta said. “It’s really kind of getting people who likely to support the president off the couch.”

On Trotters Circle in Kissimmee, a block with boarded-up homes at each end, Obama needs the ballots of renters like Loida Montalvo to replace the Democrats who have lost their homes. Ten houses down from her four-bedroom, $1,000-a-month rambler, Bank of America has initiated foreclosure proceedings on a house that was registered to a Democratic primary voter, according to county records.

First, Obama organizers have to knock on her door. Then register her.

“My papers to vote haven’t come yet,” said the Cuba-born Montalvo, a 25-year-old student who became a citizen last July and said she’s unfamiliar with American voting procedures. “We are still waiting.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Hans Nichols in Washington at hnichols2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net

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