Obama vs. Romney Could Come Down to Martin vs. Zimmerman

The shooting of Trayvon Martin could wield outsize influence in the 2012 election, writes Amy Green.

Lucas Jackson, Reuters / Landov

Could Trayvon Martin decide the 2012 presidential election?

It’s not as far-fetched as it may sound. After all, Martin’s killing, at the hands of a neighborhood-watch captain, took place in a state where 537 votes determined the outcome of the 2000 race.

Back then, of course, the country was experiencing a period of relative peace and prosperity. This year couldn’t be more different. We are in the throes of an ongoing financial crisis with near-record levels of unemployment, we’re entering our second decade of war, and our political partisanship is more pitched and vitriolic than at any time in recent memory. Also, we have a black president.

In this context, the shooting of an unarmed black 17-year-old by a half-white, half-Hispanic neighborhood-watch captain named George Zimmerman could wield outsized influence in deciding who runs the country for the next four years.

“Elections [here] are won by very narrow margins,” said Lance deHaven-Smith, professor of public administration at Florida State University and author of The Battle for Florida: An Annotated Compendium of Materials from the 2000 Presidential Election.

“The main thing that determines the outcome is the turnout,” he said. Given the mix of a racially charged killing and the nation’s first black president, deHaven-Smith said, “you automatically have a connection and a parallel to draw. So people, particularly black voters, they registered in very large numbers in 2008, and the big question has been, will they turn out” in 2012?

Martin was killed in central Florida, the swing region of this swing state, where rural and conservative North Florida gives way to urban, more liberal South Florida. Here, cosmopolitan Orlando anchors what is known to politicos as the I-4 corridor, where the highway threads together Tampa, Orlando, and Daytona Beach, as well as communities of commuting suburbanites, citrus farmers, cow and horse ranchers, and Hispanics, especially Puerto Ricans.

If the story motivates blacks in this region to turn out in greater numbers in November, it could give a crucial boost to President Barack Obama, who won the state in 2008 in part because of his performance in the I-4 corridor.

So far, blacks nationwide appear to be paying closer attention than nonblacks to the story of Martin’s shooting—80 percent compared to 59 percent of nonblacks, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll. They also tend to believe in larger numbers that the shooting was racially motivated, that Zimmerman is guilty of a crime, and that he would have been arrested sooner if he were black.

But while Sanford, the Orlando suburb where the Feb. 26 shooting took place, is about 30 percent black, it is part of Seminole County, a middle- to upper-class suburban county that was two of seven along the I-4 corridor that went for Sen. John McCain in 2008. Florida’s electoral strength has only grown since then; following the 2010 census, the state received two more electoral votes, for a total of 29.

“These seven counties [comprising the I-4 corridor] will really be at the heart of this presidential election because we are the largest swing state,” said Michael Ertel, Seminole County’s elections supervisor. “So will folks use the incidents of that evening to try to rally voters? Absolutely. On both sides.”

Obama himself has already invoked Martin’s killing, commenting that, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” The remark appeared to be prompted by pressure from black activists among others, and sparked sharp criticism from Republicans who said Obama was politicizing an already racially divisive story. It was also notable because Obama has generally steered clear of any references to race, with the exception of his 2009 “Beer Summit,” which followed the president’s much-criticized remark that local police had “acted stupidly” in arresting a black Harvard professor who was trying to get into his own home without a key.

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While the controversy over Obama’s comments has died down, Zimmerman’s arrest last week on second-degree murder charges is sure to keep the story in the headlines throughout the election season. Zimmerman faces a bond hearing Friday, but Wednesday, the judge assigned to hear the case, Jessica Recksiedler, stepped aside at the request of defense lawyers, who had argued that she had a conflict of interest. (A new judge, Kenneth R. Lester Jr., was assigned to the case Wednesday afternoon.) Also last week, prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed to seal Zimmerman’s case file, but media organizations have petitioned the court to reverse that decision.

The ramifications of the Martin shooting extend beyond the presidential race to other close Florida races, such as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s race for reelection, deHaven-Smith said. Nelson, a Democrat, faces two formidable Republican challengers, former U.S. senator George LeMieux and U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, son of the popular former U.S. senator by the same name.

“If [blacks] turn out they will probably vote a straight Democratic ticket. They are the most loyal Democrats of any racial or ethnic group,” deHaven-Smith said.

As if all this weren’t enough, the Republican National Convention is being held in Tampa in August, and the shooting will no doubt be on the minds of attendees, if for no other reason than the attention it has drawn to Florida’s notably gun-friendly legislation, especially the law known as Stand Your Ground, which grants citizens wide latitude in the use of deadly force during a fight. Florida is among at least 20 states with such a law, and Zimmerman is expected to use the law in his defense.

This means that gun laws—always a flashpoint of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats—will have an even higher profile in this year’s election season. The line-drawing has already begun, as Mitt Romney, the near-certain Republican presidential nominee, seemed to invoke Stand Your Ground at last week’s annual convention of the National Rifle Association. “We need a president who will stand up for the rights of hunters, sportsmen and those seeking to protect their homes and families,” Romney said. “President Obama has not. I will.”

But speaking out in favor of more-lenient gun laws could be problematic for Republicans at the convention, deHaven-Smith said, because of the increased attention around the country to Stand Your Ground laws.

“I think they will handle it with great difficulty,” he said. “They’ve got a couple of choices. They can ignore it—that doesn’t look very good.” But if they “make a big thing about it,” deHaven-Smith said, people will remind them that they backed Stand Your Ground in the first place. “This is a no-win situation.”

Aubrey Jewett, political science professor at the University of Central Florida, agreed that the Stand Your Ground law would likely face revision given the election year, but said the Martin story would be big any year.

“I remember reading about it the day after it happened, and I was just shocked and I couldn’t believe they hadn’t arrested somebody,” Jewett said. “It just boggled my mind. I think it boggled a lot of people’s minds.”

In the end, deHaven-Smith said, who wins the possibly election-turning state will come down to whether citizens’ response to the shooting translates into votes.

“The question will be turnout, and without turnout it’s very difficult for a Democrat to win in a statewide election in Florida.”