Nov. 04--Maybe we need to get clear on this: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are running for president of the United States, not governor of Florida.
You could be excused for thinking otherwise.
From Monday through today, Obama, Romney, Vice President Joe Biden, Romney running mate Paul Ryan and first lady Michelle Obama have made a combined dozen public appearances in Florida.
The campaigns and their independent backers have shattered all previous spending records with $133 million in television advertising in Florida, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.
The money bought 41,373 TV spots just in the first three weeks of October. Tampa, Orlando and Miami ranked third, fifth and seventh nationally in the number of spots.
There's one reason for all this: It's Florida's position in that arcane American institution, the Electoral College, where demographics and political trends have made the Sunshine State the most important state.
Florida doesn't always decide presidential elections.
But in the battle for a 270-vote majority of the 538 Electoral College votes, Florida is the only swing state that Romney, or any Republican, must carry to win the presidency.
And it's the one state where a win can guarantee Obama, or any competitive Democrat, four years in the White House.
For at least five presidential elections, that's been clear to the candidates and their armies of political strategists.
"If we win the state of Florida, this election is over," Biden told a crowd in Sun City Center on Oct. 19.
That has led Democrats to use a Florida strategy in every campaign since 1996.
They campaign here to either win or force the Republican opponent to divert money and time from other swing states.
Bill Clinton in 1996 and Obama in 2008 won Florida and the presidency. In 1992, Clinton won without Florida, and polls suggest Obama could do the same this year.
"For Obama, you can see other paths to a win without Florida. He has more options in the Rust Belt, Nevada as well," said veteran Florida Republican political strategist and consultant David Johnson.
"But for Romney, there's no path to victory without Florida."
That's because of Electoral College arithmetic. Florida is one of the four electoral "megastates:" California with 55 electoral votes, Texas with 38, and New York and Florida with 29 each.
California and New York are reliably Democratic, so any competitive Democrat can count on their 84 total votes.
"They start the race almost a third of the way to the finish line," Johnson noted.
Texas votes reliably Republican, and Florida is the only swing state in the top four.
No other swing state offers anywhere near that big a cache of electoral votes. Pennsylvania and Illinois, with 20 each, lean Democratic, and Ohio, the next largest true swing state, has 18.
That means to have a chance to reach 270, a Republican must have Florida's 29 along with Texas' 38.
In this election, much of the focus has been on other swing states, particularly Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and Nevada. They're more likely than Florida to be "tipping point" states, whose votes decide the outcome.
But that's only because Romney is considered likely to win Florida -- if he doesn't, those states won't matter.
Despite Romney's very narrow lead in state polls, polling analyst Nate Silver, University of Virginia political prognosticator Larry Sabato and others list Florida as "leans Republican."
"If Romney wins Florida, Ohio is the most crucial state," Johnson said. "Florida and Ohio, that's his path to victory.
"But if he loses Florida, he has no path to victory."
Political pundits typically say no Republican has won the presidency without winning Florida since Calvin Coolidge in 1924.
But that fact hides the true reason Florida has become the nation's ultimate swing state in the modern political era. University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus, who specializes in voter demographics, has documented a surprising fact that explains why Florida swings politically: It's the one state whose population breakdown most closely mirrors the nation as a whole.
In categories of race and geography -- black, white and Hispanic, or rural, urban and suburban -- Florida closely approximates the entire nation, she said.
In age groups, even though Florida has long been a retiree haven, it's only slightly older than the rest of the country -- and moving toward parity as the nation grows older and Florida grows younger.
"Two-thirds of our voters were not born here, so Florida's politics have been imported from every other region of the country plus Latin America," she said.
"It's a true melting pot. You have every point of view represented." So if the nation swings, Florida swings.
But demographics could change Florida's political role in the coming years in a way that worries Republicans.
Like much of the nation, Florida is becoming more Hispanic, and most of the growth is coming from Hispanic groups who lean Democratic.
While conservative Cuban exiles in South Florida once dominated Florida Hispanic politics, Puerto Ricans and immigrants from Latin American are now the fastest-growing Hispanic groups.
In 2008, after decades of Cuban/Republican dominance, more Florida Hispanic voters registered Democratic than Republican for the first time. Hispanic Democrats now outnumber Republicans 38 percent to 30 percent, with 32 percent no-party or minor party affiliates.
What if Florida joined New York and California as reliably Democratic? Or if Texas, which is experiencing the same rapid Hispanic population increases, turned blue?
"If we don't figure out how to talk to and recruit Hispanic voters, we're going to go the way of the dinosaur," Johnson said. "We will be extinct as a function of mathematics in national elections."
Ultimately, assimilation could change that, he said. But, "for a generation, four or five election cycles, you can see a very difficult challenge for Republicans."
(c)2012 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.)
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Distributed by MCT Information Services
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