Orlando Draws Political Tourists in Tight Florida Contest

Outside Groups Descend on Tight Presidential Contest in Florida
US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets policemen before boarding his campaign plane in Orlando, Florida. Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Everyone’s going to Orlando.

Most of the volunteers in Alabama and Georgia boarding buses financed by Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by billionaires David and Charles Koch, have headed there.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has visited Orlando more than other parts of Florida, and no region has more of President Barack Obama’s 106 state campaign offices. More presidential campaign ads have aired in Orlando since Oct. 14 than in any TV market east of the Mississippi River.

The contest within Orlando’s suburbs and surrounding counties reflects the tightening race for the biggest electoral prize among states both campaigns view as competitive, with the latest poll showing a virtual tie in Florida.

“Orlando is ground zero for the state,” said Democratic pollster David Beattie, president of Fernandina Beach, Florida-based Hamilton Campaigns. “This area’s had some of the highest growth in the country over the last decade. So people have fewer ties to the state and that makes it more of a swing market.”

Florida, where three of the last five presidential contests have been decided by fewer than 3 percentage points, is a “must win” for Romney, says former U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, an Orlando Republican. Barring upsets in states favoring Obama, it becomes mathematically impossible for Romney to win the White House without Florida’s 29 electoral votes.

“Florida is going to be close,” said Brett Doster, Romney’s Florida campaign adviser. “And Orlando is the bellwether that will indicate which way the state is going.”

Outside Groups

In east Orlando neighborhoods, Americans for Prosperity field director Brenda Janssen often crosses paths with Democratic activists knocking on doors. Janssen has run into the same group of Democrats twice in the past week.

“They just kind of look at us,” Janssen said. “It’s like this all over Orlando.”

The group has filled charter buses with about 250 out-of-state volunteers to knock on doors in Orlando this month, said Slade O’Brien, state director for Americans for Prosperity. More arrive this week.

The National Rifle Association is adding staff to its Orlando campaign office in the days ahead of the Nov. 6 election. About 240 home-schooled students from Alabama, Mississippi and other parts of Florida will be deployed to Orlando, the largest of 18 teams assembled by Purcellville, Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association, spokesman Jeremiah Lorrig said.

Faith & Freedom Coalition, a Duluth, Georgia-based non-profit focused on turning out evangelical Christian voters, has distributed more than 263,000 voter guides in the Orlando area and is sending 100 volunteers into Orlando and Tampa for the final week of the campaign, more than any other region on the country, said Gary Marx, executive director of the group.

Preachers and Teachers

“We’re making a huge push in Florida with a special emphasis on the Orlando area,” said Ralph Reed, founder of Faith & Freedom Coalition.

Randi Weingarten, president of the Washington-based American Federation of Teachers, an AFL-CIO affiliate that claims 1.5 million members, made three stops in the Orlando area during a seven-city bus tour of Florida last week as part of a get-out-the-vote effort. Former President Bill Clinton campaigned for Obama in Orlando Oct. 29.

“I’ve never seen such political activity,” said K.T. Caldwell, 63, a teacher in the Orlando suburbs and president of the Seminole County teachers’ union. “People who have been silent are now finding a voice. There are signs all over the place. Facebook is blowing my socks off.”

TV War

The Orlando media market, with the same number of voters as Colorado, is the geographic center of a state that stretches across two times zones and 830 miles from Pensacola to Key West. In the political math of this swing state, Republicans tend to dominate the western Panhandle and North Florida while Democrats run up vote counts along the Southeast coast from Miami to West Palm Beach. That leaves a swath of Central Florida suburbs from Tampa through Orlando up for grabs.

More TV ads aired in Florida than in any other state between Sept. 28 and Oct. 27, enough to run for 20 consecutive days, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising. In the two weeks between Oct. 14 and Oct. 27, only viewers in Denver and Las Vegas TV markets saw more than the 5,810 presidential ads in Orlando.

The state’s struggling economy has benefited Romney’s campaign. Florida’s 8.7 percent unemployment rate is the same as when Obama took office in 2009. Yet that rate, down from an 11.4 percent peak in February 2010, is due mostly to workers no longer looking for jobs, according to a Sept. 12 report from the state’s nonpartisan Economic & Demographic Research Office.

Add discouraged workers into the numbers and Florida’s jobless rate is more like 10.1 percent, according to the report.

‘Crush It’

In the Orlando area, 17 percent of mortgages are more than 90 days past due, the highest rate among the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas, according to CoreLogic, a Santa Ana, California-based real estate information company.

“With housing still slow, it will be more difficult for the president to win Florida this time, but not impossible,” said state Representative Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat. “He has to crush it in the Orlando area. That’s what it comes down to.”

In a state that voted for Obama in 2008 and former President George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004, Romney is leading among voters who aren’t registered with a major party, about 24 percent of state’s 11.9 million voters.

The newest Quinnipiac University poll in Florida for The New York Times and CBS News found Obama favored among 48 percent of all likely voters, with Romney at 47 percent, a statistical tie in a survey of 1,073 likely voters with a possible margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.

Independent Voters

Among independents, Romney led Obama 49 percent to 44 percent in that survey conducted Oct. 23-28, after the final debates.

In 2008, Obama won the state by 2.8 percentage points thanks partly to a strong showing in the Orlando area. In Orange County, home to Orlando, and six surrounding counties, Obama won 49,300 more votes than Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. In the same counties in 2004, Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts lost by 137,800 votes.

This time, Obama state campaign director Ashley Walker is counting history on her side: Every incumbent president has won Florida since 1984.

The campaign boasts the “largest ground game in Florida history” and likes early voting turnout. Democratic voters in Florida have cast 49,100 more absentee ballots and early votes than Republicans through Oct. 30, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

Changing Electorate

Obama supporters also point to Florida’s changing electorate since 2008. The number of Hispanic, Asian, black and mixed-race voters has grown by 799,000, accounting for 31 percent of voting rolls, compared with 26 percent in 2008, state data shows.

The share of minority voters has increased to 44 percent from 34 percent in Orange County, among the biggest percentage point increases in the state. Obama won Orange by 86,200 votes.

Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, said during an Oct. 29 conference call with reporters that the Democratic turnout in Florida is buoyed by “sporadic voters.”

“That is an incredible sign of strength on this campaign,” Messina said. “We are closing very strong.”