On Nov. 6, voters will decide whether Florida will swing Red or Blue.
The Sunshine State is the most important of the battleground states where this year’s presidential election will be decided. Naples Daily News reporters and photographers have fanned out across Florida, talking to elected officials and ordinary people about their concerns, the issues that will determine how they vote, and grassroots efforts to sway the undecided.
How is the state leaning this year? This is the first in a series of online reports on Florida as a Swing State. The report publishes beginning Sunday, Oct. 7, for eight days in the Daily News.
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NAPLES — Call it the king of swing states.
With 29 electoral votes, Florida is considered the most valuable toss-up state in the 2012 presidential election. A win for either candidate would go a long way toward securing a four-year stay at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Florida might not be a must-win state for President Barack Obama. But all paths to a Republican victory in November must lead through the Sunshine State, analysts say.
"Obama has momentum in Florida. The polls have shown him with an increasing lead in Florida, which was unexpected given the 2010 election and the (electorate's) mood," said Kevin Cate, a Tallahassee-based political consultant. "If Mitt Romney loses it here, he loses it all."
Even so, Floridians can expect to see Obama, Romney and their surrogates in the coming weeks. In September, University of Florida students got a visit from Michelle Obama; Jacksonville veterans spent time with Sen. John McCain; Vice President Joe Biden spent a morning with Southwest Floridians; Obama scheduled a visit to Miami this coming week and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan got a taste of Cuba in Little Havana.
With a month until the presidential election, all eyes are trained on Florida.
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Political experts see Florida as four different states within one. The state's vast land mass and diverse population has made it a key state for presidential elections.
"It is a melting pot of the South," said Susie Wiles, a Jacksonville-based political consultant, "and some say of the country."
By breaking the state into four distinct regions, campaigns must tailor their message to the area — the Panhandle, a solidly conservative area that's not heavily populated; North Florida, another conservative stronghold that has evolved into a hotbed of wealthy Republican donors; Central Florida, or the Interstate 4 corridor, which is teeming with independent voters desirable to both parties; and South Florida, a Democratic stronghold.
While not entirely out of the ordinary, the fact that one state can have such vastly different regions makes it difficult for candidates to hone in on a single theme to pitch statewide.
"It is not an easy win," said Wiles, a former campaign manager for Gov. Rick Scott. "It is absolutely not an easy win."
That's best illustrated through past election results. Obama squeaked out a win in 2008 with 51 percent of the vote, while Sen. John McCain received 48.2 percent. The margin was a little wider in 2004 on the Republican side when President George W. Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry with 52 percent of the vote to Kerry's 47 percent.
And then there was 2000.
Bush, who was seeking his first term as president, received 48.8 percent of the vote. So did Vice President Al Gore. A hotly contested recount followed and the debate eventually found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bush was declared the winner after he was awarded the state's electoral votes.
Razor-thin margins could be seen again in Florida on Nov. 6. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released Oct. 3 said 47 percent of the 890 likely voters would vote for Obama, while 46 percent said they would vote for Romney.
"I really think it's going to be a very close election," said Tino Rodriguez, a Tampa-based political analyst. "The debates will be an integral part of getting elected. Obama has a slight lead right now and, in my professional and personal opinion, it's his to lose."
For Obama to win Florida, he will need to make gains in traditionally Republican parts of the state — like North Florida, the Panhandle and Southwest Florida — while maintaining his base in South Florida.
The opposite would need to occur for a Romney victory. The former governor would need to make gains in South Florida and historically Democratic communities like Tallahassee and Orlando, while maintaining his base in more traditional parts of the state, analysts said.
But when it comes down to it, both campaigns are out to win the center of the state.
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Some people call it purple. Others call it pink. Everyone calls it crucial.
The Interstate 4 corridor stretches across the middle of the state and separates the Democratic-leaning south from the Republican-leaning north. It's considered the swing region within the swing state and is on every candidate's to-win list.
Hillsborough County, home to Tampa and along the I-4 corridor, is considered the swing county within the swing region within the swing state.
It's flip-flopped in the past two elections. Republicans held their nominating convention there. And the president twice visited the area — first in an unscheduled stop at a popular Tampa restaurant and then for a formal campaign rally — in the two weeks following his party's convention in early September in Charlotte, N.C.
"I think this county has a good pulse of the direction of the country," said Chris Mitchell, chairman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee.
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said the area is "the most evenly divided place in Florida." The area, MacManus said, has "every slice" of America a person can take.
That includes hordes of independent voters, ripe for a campaign's picking.
Winning Florida is all about wooing those voters, said Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
"It's all about getting the message out to independents and soft Democrats who are frustrated and making sure they hear the truth and we're connecting to them," Curry said.
While state Republican Party leaders said they need to take a whole-state approach to winning the election, Curry said candidates "have to be tactical and strategic" in their campaigning. So, for Republicans and Democrats alike, that means spending as much time as possible in Central Florida.
David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, said the party's eyes and resources are turned toward the I-4 corridor. Bergstein said the corridor is a "classic swing area" that has had a demographic shift over the years that is trending Democratic.Still, he said, neither candidate can hang his hopes on just winning the corridor.
"It's a big state with a big say," Bergstein said.
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No one expects Obama to win Southwest Florida, or for Romney to sweep Southeast Florida. But that doesn't mean they aren't campaigning in those hard-to-win locations.
Incremental gains made in often overlooked locations — like Lee County or the Panhandle — could help push a candidate over the top, political experts said.
That's what some people believe happened in 2008 in Duval County when Obama fell just short of McCain with 49 percent of the vote to McCain's 51 percent. That's a 7 percent change to Democrat from the 2004 election, and experts said it could have been enough to give Obama the boost he needed to win Florida in 2008.
Curry, who is also chairman of Duval County's Republican Executive Committee, said the local party is doing whatever it can to win back historically conservative voters.
The same can be said for what happened in Osceola County, south of Orlando. The county went decisively for Obama in 2008 because of the influx of newly registered voters, many of whom registered as Democrats.
Republican Party officials said they were blindsided, and, like Duval County, are ramping up to make sure voters go Republican come Election Day.
Democrats are doing the same in Republican strongholds across the state; Bergstein said his party is on the ground with more offices opened throughout the state than in previous years.
Southwest Florida may be a perfect example for how the Democratic Party is hoping to get just a few more votes than in 2008. The Obama campaign has opened four offices in Lee County and two in Collier. The president scheduled a campaign rally in Fort Myers in June; the first lady attended a fundraiser in Naples earlier this year; and Vice President Joe Biden held a rally in Fort Myers in September.
While experts say it's unlikely Democrats will come out on top in Collier and Lee counties in November, vote gains could go a long way toward winning the state.
"You have to perform. You have to do as well as you can in the state," said Wiles, the Jacksonville political consultant. "That is not a cake walk. It's complicated."
Learn more about the Naples Daily News Swing State project at naplesnews.com/election.