With 29 electoral votes, Florida is the most glittering prize in this year's presidential election. Without a win in the nation's biggest swing state, it's hard to come up with a scenario that keeps Barack Obama in the White House.
Since 1960, only one winner has captured the presidency without carrying the Sunshine State, said Lynn University American studies professor Robert Watson. "Florida is vital," he said.
In 2008, Obama won 51 percent of the vote in Florida, besting Republican Sen. John McCain by 236,450 votes out of nearly 8.4 million votes cast. For Obama to repeat, Watson and state Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, said he must minimize losses in conservative north Florida, run competitively in the Interstate 4 corridor in central Florida, and win big in South Florida.
Here's what political analysts and operatives say Democrats must do to make that happen — and, conversely, what Republicans must prevent.
Convince independents Obama's on their side and motivate them to vote
Neither Democrats nor Republicans have enough voters to win a statewide election. That puts the power to determine the winner in the hands of the one in four Florida voters who aren't registered with either party.
As in 2008, Obama's "got to win independents," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "If he does that again, he's going to get re-elected."
Independent/no party affiliation voters swing between parties depending on which candidates they think can do the best job. But they also don't vote as often as people committed to a party.
Robin Rorapaugh, a Democratic strategist from Hollywood, thinks Obama can reach independents, and also get them to the polls. "Independent voters believe he's honest. They like him," she said. "He doesn't look radical."
State Rep. Perry Thurston of Plantation, incoming Democratic leader in the state House, said the ongoing fight for the Republican nomination, with candidates emphasizing conservative positions to win votes from the party's base and tea party activists, is boosting Obama's electability.
"The Republicans have done such a good job of pushing their candidates to the far right, it's going to be difficult to come back to capture many of the independents," he said.
Mobilize key constituencies
Few doubt that traditional Democratic voting blocs — blacks, non-Cuban Hispanics, Jews, 20-somethings and seniors — will mostly go Democratic again on Nov. 6. The big unknown is whether they'll show up in same big numbers as in 2008.
If they don't, that's bad news for the president.
"If Obama doesn't get a big turnout, Obama's going to lose," said Watson.
To help build turnout, Randolph and John Ramos, state Democratic committeeman from Palm Beach County and second vice president of the state Hispanic Democratic Caucus, said they're working to reach out to young voters and Hispanics.
Demographers estimate 600,000 Jews live in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, and Watson said Jewish voters are critical to Obama's chances. Obama received an estimated 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. Since he took office, Republicans have been working hard to undermine the decades-long allegiance of Jewish Americans to the Democratic Party by arguing the president isn't sufficiently supportive of Israel.
Democrats have responded with outreach efforts to Jewish voters led by national party chairwoman U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston.
Galvanized by Obama's historic candidacy, millions of new black voters cast ballots in 2008, producing a black turnout of 65.2 percent, up from 60.3 percent in the 2004 presidential election. Nobody really expects such a heavy turnout in 2012, but the Obama campaign is campaigning heavily on historically black college and university campuses, and also at barber shops and beauty salons, which are centers of black neighborhoods.
Thurston said he and other black elected officials in Florida will also be out in force in their communities — including at black churches — to minimize any falloff from 2008. "We're going to do everything we need to do," he said.
Make sure Democrats get to vote and that they do
It sounds basic, but in 2012 it's not so simple.
Obama's "No. 1 challenge is to make sure that our voters are able to vote," Rorapaugh said. "We have to be very diligent."
A new election law passed by the Republicans who control state government in Tallahassee has made it much more difficult for independent groups to register voters, more complicated for people who've moved to transfer their voter registrations, and slashed the number of days of early voting.
Early voting had been a big plus for Democrats, so they'll have to figure out how to get their voters to use absentee ballots in 2012 instead. And low income and college-age voters, who tend to favor Democrats, move more often, so the new voter registration rules could cost Obama votes.
To ensure victory, the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party will have to engage in widespread, thorough campaigns to register new voters friendly to their candidates and party and verify that registration rolls for existing voters are accurate and up-to-date.
Make the president's message reaches its multiple Florida targets
Nature lovers, aerospace scientists, college students and military families are among the numerous Florida constituencies being targeted and wooed by the Obama re-election campaign.
Already this year, the president, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have been in Florida talking about tourism, children's health, and college affordability.
The president's budget, released last week, called for spending more on Everglades restoration and at the Kennedy Space Center.
And the campaign has opened 11 field offices — including Broward, Palm Beach and Orange county locations — organized 200 State of the Union watch parties in Florida, and recruited volunteers who've already called and visited thousands of voters.
The Obama campaign is counting on the volunteers to spread a pro-Obama message — calculating that face-to-face contacts with relatives, friends and co-workers have more influence on undecided voters than paid advertising or news reports.
Convince people the economy is improving
This may be the most critical mission. If Obama's Republican challenger can point to signs of economic reversals, and pin the blame on Obama, the Democratic incumbent isn't likely to be doing much celebrating next Inauguration Day.
"The economy is issue 1 through 129 in this election. Everything else is secondary," said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, D.C.
Even more important than the state of the economy are economic trends and voters' perceptions. "How people feel about the economy is more important than the actual state of the economy," Gonzales said.
Economic statistics, such as Florida's current 9.9 percent jobless rate, are improving, and Brown said people are feeling somewhat sunnier about the future. "There's a general sense that the economy might be getting a little bit better," Brown said.
But there's a wild card in all this: the direction of the economy between now and Election Day is largely out of Obama's hands, even though many voters will blame him if the bottom falls out. A European economic meltdown or a conflict with Iran that cuts off oil supplies from the Middle East could plunge the United States into crisis mode and cost Obama a second term.
So could a sudden domestic calamity, like a hurricane hitting Florida on Obama's watch.
"The greatest factor in presidential years, for Democrats and Republicans, are hurricanes," said Rorapaugh, who was Texas state director for Bill Clinton in 1992. "If we have a big hurricane and the administration handles it well, he wins. If he doesn't handle it well, we don't win."
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