Swing State

Why Florida Is Still Up for Grabs for Obama or Romney

One poll has the GOP candidate a bit ahead, another has the president with an edge. How Medicare and Israel are making the Sunshine State and its electoral votes anyone’s guess.

09.14.12 8:45 AM ET

A new poll out Thursday evening from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal gives Barack Obama some breathing room in three key states—Virginia, Ohio, and perhaps most importantly Florida, a state that analysts say is crucial to Mitt Romney’s hopes of winning the White House.

There the poll gives Obama a 49-44 edge, and comes on the heels of a poll out Thursday afternoon that gave brief hope to the Romney campaign.

That poll, sponsored by the Associated Industries of Florida, a pro-business lobbying group, puts Romney up 50-47 in the state. It, however, comes with caveats. The survey was conducted by the right-leaning polling firm McLaughlin & Associates, and the candidates are within the 4 percent margin of error. Other polls out this week—from Survey USA, and Rasmussen, to name but a few—give Obama a similarly slight edge, or call the race a dead heat.

Still, for a Romney camp that has seen poll numbers slip nationally coming out of the convention and is facing withering criticism after it bungled the response to the Middle East embassy shootings, any good poll in a storm will do. And so backers of the former Massachusetts governor pounced on the numbers this afternoon as evidence that its messaging in the Sunshine State was working.

“This poll is certainly a breath of fresh air,” said Brian Hughes, a consultant and former spokesman for the Florida GOP. “The state in general is going to be a better place for Romney than it was for John McCain in 2008.”

It had better be. The Romney’s campaign tricky tango to get to 270 electoral votes is made much easier if Florida and its 29 electors turn red. Pollster Nate Silver gives Romney just a 2 percent chance of becoming the next president if he loses Florida.

Many pundits assumed that making it to the winner’s circle without Florida was a gamble Romney was willing to take after he chose Paul Ryan as his running mate. The budget that bears the Wisconsin congressman’s name calls for the gradual phasing-out of Medicare for a program run by private insurers. And even though Ryan revised his budget plan to leave the current Medicare system in place for today’s seniors, Democrats around the country have used the budget blueprint to hammer Republicans, especially among older voters. In Florida, more than 17 percent of voters are 65 or older.

But even some Democrats concede that the Republicans have done a good job of muddying the message on the Medicare issue by rebranding the Romney/Ryan ticket as the one that will protect the program and accusing Obama of squeezing savings out of the program to pay for his health-care overhaul (even as the Ryan budget relies on those same savings).

“You know, that is a mystery to me, too,” said Alex Patton, a Republican consultant and pollster. “When they picked Paul Ryan I was very concerned. My only take is that maybe seniors are like [under the Ryan plan] ‘all right, I’m OK, and maybe these guys are trying to save Medicare for everyone else. I don’t know if credit goes to the Republicans for taking the issue head-on or the Democrats for not responding fast enough.”

Florida is also perhaps the only swing state where any softening of support among Jewish voters for Obama can make the difference between winning and losing. 2008 brought “the Great Schlep” as comedian Sarah Silverman led a campaign for young Jews in the Northeast to travel to visit their grandparents in Florida and convince them to vote for the unfamiliar figure with the funny name over the war hero. Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote then, and will need to run up similar margins to beat back the Republican strongholds in the northern part of the state, but observers say that is unlikely.

“With his record on Israel, Obama should be up over 90 percent among Jewish voters,” said Robert Watson, a professor of American Studies at Lynn University in Boca Raton. “But there has been a very effective fear-mongering campaign that has been running through the synagogues, through the Hadassah chapters, through the community groups, and it has been making inroads.”

Watson said that when he speaks to older Jewish voters, they often reference chain emails or blogs they have read which question Obama’s upbringing and his commitment to Israel.

“I don’t want to sound disparaging, but folks over 65 are not as sophisticated when it comes to social media,” he said. “They read something online and they don’t realize it’s not coming from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or Newsweek.”

Watson picks another reason for Florida remaining competitive: a statewide Democratic Party that is in disarray. 2010 saw the GOP win all five statewide seats, launch the careers of Tea Party stars Gov. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, steal four congressional seats away from the Democrats, and turn both houses of the state legislatures into veto-proof GOP majorities.

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“The Democratic Party is in shambles. It is disorganized, it is not well-run, they don’t have the kind of grassroots get-out-the-vote organization that Democrats usually have. They have no bench. Rick Scott is incredibly unpopular, and the only guy the Democrats have to run against him is [former Republican Governor] Charlie Crist, depending on what party he is with this week.”

Democrats see the fact that Romney seems to be scoring better in Florida than he is in other swing states as proof of what they have been saying all along: there is no way the Sunshine State won’t be agonizingly close. They note that both Obama and George W. Bush in 2004 won the state by less than three percentage points, after a virtual tie in 2000. If the Ryan choice shaves even a few percentage points off the GOP total, it will be enough they say to deliver the state to them again.

Both sides say 2012 lacks the intensity that 2008 had in the state, with Sarah Silverman on one side and Sarah Palin on the other. “It is a hold your nose kind of election,” said Patton.

If that is the case, there will be plenty for Floridians to avoid smelling over the remaining weeks of the race. After the convention—and the GOP one was held in Tampa, mind you—both Romney and Obama travelled to Florida, and this week Bill Clinton did. Ryan is headed there over the weekend, and Obama will be back next week.

“Every poll shows it coming down to the wire,” said Hughes. “We are ready for a dogfight.”