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 eighth 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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TALLAHASSEEE _ For a city built on politics, you'd think there would be more buzz surrounding the upcoming presidential election. But in downtown Tallahassee, corner lots are filled with yard signs for local candidates, not Mitt Romney or Barack Obama.
It's not that people don't care.
Thousands of people came out to hear Michelle Obama speak in late September; students spend their afternoons registering voters; and young professionals chat about politics over cocktails after work in midtown.
High turnout rates and a community that traditionally votes Democrat in presidential and statewide elections — despite the fact Tallahassee is teeming with Republican politicians — means Leon County is an important Democratic stronghold.
The county has 96,984 registered Democrats, compared to 49,961 registered Republicans, and Democrats have claimed victory in each presidential election since 1992.
In 2008, Obama defeated Sen. John McCain with 91,747 votes to McCain's 55,705 votes. Four years earlier, Sen. John Kerry defeated then- President George W. Bush with 83,873 votes to Bush's 51,615.
But Leon County doesn't just go blue in presidential election years. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink won Leon County in 2010 with 66,447 votes to then-candidate Rick Scott's 31,328 votes.
And while Leon voters didn't vote for a Democrat in the 2010 Senate race, a Republican didn't win either. Instead, former Gov. Charlie Crist, an independent, beat out candidates Marco Rubio and Rep. Kendrick Meek.
Election history makes it almost certain Obama will win the Leon County vote Nov. 6, so the goal for Republicans is to get enough GOP votes to place swing state Florida in Romney's column.But despite the role the county will play in the battle for Florida, experts said Election Day results likely will have little effect on Florida's capital. This community — long dependent on the day-to-day dealings of government agencies — will remain dependent on state government, no matter what happens on the federal level.
"It's a government town, it's a university town," said Chris Atkins, a Tallahassee political consultant. "These people in one form or fashion, depend on the government."
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It's sometimes hard to find someone in Tallahassee willing to fess up to their political affiliation.
If it's a politician, their positions are evident. Ask a lobbyist or an attorney where they stand, and getting a straight answer may be difficult. It's understandable, considering many make a living reaching out to politicians on both sides of the aisle.
But keeping mum doesn't mean they're not talking about the election.
"Everyone talks about the election," said Meghan Kelly, the chief operating officer of Lisa Miller & Associates. "You can't not talk about it."
Kelly declined to say who she plans to vote for in November. But in between sips of white wine on a recent Wednesday evening, Kelly said no matter who wins the election she doesn't think her life would change much.
"Obviously we care," she said. "But will the world change? No. The world will not change."
More than 44,000 of the county's nearly 278,000 residents are government workers, leaving 85,000 working in the private sector. But those not paid directly by Florida taxpayers — like lobbyists and attorneys — often have a connection to the government sector.
That connection, Kelly said, is probably why the city and surrounding unincorporated area leans Democratic. Kelly said she thinks "all the state workers" is one of the main reasons the county is such a Democratic stronghold.
Atkins said that's probably true. Government employees "tend to vote Democrat" and local candidates often tailor their message to that constituency.
"When Republicans here run, they pay attention to state workers, so they'll defend them," he said. "A lot of their personal leanings are generally reliable on the Republican side, but they won't vote for Rick Scott. It's a little different. But I'm seeing a lot of Obama support."
That doesn't mean Republicans aren't trying to win over a few more voters this year than in 2008. Atkins, who is involved in the local Republican Party, said Republicans in Leon County are increasing efforts to get their supporters to vote by mail.
"Republicans own the absentee ballots," he said. "You know who is going to vote ... and 90- to 95 percent of absentee ballots are going to be returned."
Democrats are working to get out the vote, too, but they're focusing on another crucial voting bloc in Tallahassee — college students.
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Bethany Millette sat on a stone wall on a recent Thursday afternoon as students whizzed by on skateboards and bicycles.
By the numbers
Registered voters:182,972 (50,844, Republican; 99,922, Democrat; 32,206 other)
2008 result: 91,747, Obama; 55,705 McCain
2004 result: 51,615 Bush; 83,873 Kerry
2010 gubernatorial results: 66,447 Sink; 31,328 Scott
2008 voter turnout: 85.4 percent, highest among Florida counties
Demographics: 58.8 percent white not Hispanic; 30.8 percent black; 5.9 percent Hispanic
Unemployment: 7.2 percent
The 20-year-old Florida State University student was taking a break from her volunteer gig with Power Vote, a nonpartisan organization aimed at promoting clean energy and climate action across the country.
On this Thursday afternoon, Millette and her fellow Power Vote volunteers handed out fliers, asking students if they're registered to vote, and making sure young voters know where the candidates stand on environmental issues.
It's a scene that's played out across the campus. Student leaders are making sure their fellow students are registered to vote and cast a ballot in November.
"I wish I could have been part of it all in 2008," said Millette, who will vote in her first presidential election in November. "I'm leaning toward a certain candidate. It's Obama."
That's something the Obama campaign is counting on. The youth vote helped propel Obama to a win in 2008. The campaign is hoping the same will be the case in 2012, and in Tallahassee — home to two major state universities, Florida State and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, or FAMU — there's a good chance that will be the case.
Florida State has an enrollment of more than 32,000, while FAMU has more than 11,000 students. And Doug Roberts, the 18-year-old behind Seminoles for Obama, is doing whatever it takes to make sure as many of those students as possible vote for the president."Everyone I talk to is really excited about the election," he said. "I think everyone is talking about it."
Roberts has been a supporter of the president's since Day 1, but he didn't get involved in the campaign until May 9, when the president expressed support for same-sex marriages.
"I grew up gay in the South and that's a tough thing," Roberts said. "When he came out for marriage equality, that was the day I walked in (to volunteer)."
The president's position on same-sex marriage may be what initially appealed to Roberts, but he said the work the administration has done to ensure that people can get a college education is what should be a major draw to any college student.
"The president understands that a college education is the way to go," he said. "I got a scholarship, but I couldn't have afforded college without a Pell Grant. He's making it easier to pay off loans and make it more affordable."
Roberts said he knows not every Florida State student supports Obama. In fact, Romney signs are sprinkled in yards of fraternity houses and apartment windows nearby. But he's hopeful efforts by organizations like his will help Obama win in November.
"People have been fired up," he said. "I don't think there's any shortage of enthusiasm here."
Learn more about the Naples Daily News Swing State project at naplesnews.com/election.