By Scott Powers and Jim Stratton, Orlando Sentinel –
ORLANDO, Fla. — President Barack Obama’s re-election was a tiny landslide: an Electoral College cakewalk, built on slim margins in battleground states.
And almost nowhere was it slimmer than Florida, where his campaign’s focus on women, minorities and young voters barely kept the Sunshine State on his side.
Results Wednesday showed the president with a 49,000-vote lead in Florida over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, with just a few provisional and absentee ballots yet to be counted.
CNN exit polls showed the president won big among Latino voters, black voters and voters younger than 30 — demographic groups that Republicans have struggled mightily to capture. Obama benefited from the traditional gender gap — winning female voters by a 7-point margin — edged Romney among independents and won among Florida’s working class.
Palm Beach County Republican Chairman Sid Dinerstein said Tuesday’s results were driven “almost totally” by demographics. The president, he said, effectively targeted groups that have eluded the GOP. The results have sparked a fresh round of Republican soul searching, with some leaders suggesting the party change its tone and stance on immigration.
The president did nothing to expand his map in Florida.
All 13 counties Obama appears to have won are counties he also won four years ago. And he lost two others — Volusia and Flagler — that he carried in 2008. His overall margin of victory — if current numbers hold — shrank from 236,000 in 2008 to 49,000 votes this year, a loss of 187,000 votes.
The president’s apparent Florida victory came because he dominated most urban counties, even though Romney performed better in almost all of them than did U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whom Obama beat in Florida in 2008.
As expected, Obama easily swept South Florida but split the Interstate 4 corridor with Romney. The Republican challenger won five of nine I-4 counties but claimed none of its biggest prizes. Obama captured the population centers of Orange, Hillsborough and Pinellas. Romney’s margin of victory in the five counties he won amounted to about 74,000 votes. Obama’s total margin in the four counties he carried was almost 170,000 votes.
University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett said Obama benefited from a much-larger volunteer network that started long before Romney’s. It also spent millions on early television ads, but Romney waited until midsummer to launch his offensive.
“Romney got off to a dreadfully slow start … he just waited too long to hit his stride,” Jewett said.
University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said Obama’s final push focused on Florida’s urban areas, the president’s regions of strength. Last-minute appeals by Obama, his wife, Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, she said, “pulled a lot of younger and female voters and some others who were iffy about voting … to the finish.”
Obama suffered only minor slippage or held steady in some of the state’s biggest counties and improved his number significantly in heavily Latino counties such as Miami-Dade and Osceola. Obama carried Miami-Dade by 16.5 percentage points in 2008 but won this year by 24 percentage points, according to unofficial totals.
In Osceola four years ago, Obama beat McCain by 20 percentage points. Tuesday, he crushed Romney by 25 percentage points.
In both of those counties, Latino voters likely made the difference. Young South Florida Hispanics, particularly young Cuban-Americans, have been moving from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, said Jose Fernandez, an Orlando-based Democratic activist and past president of the state League of United Latin American Citizens.
Puerto Rican growth has been strong in Osceola County in recent years, and this year the Obama campaign and two Democratic-leaning organizations, La Raza and Mi Familia Vota, registered thousands of new Latino voters.
The Latino vote poses a growing problem for the GOP. In the eight years since President George W. Bush collected almost 45 percent of the Latino vote, the party has watched that support drain away. Only 31 percent of Latino voters across the country supported McCain, according to the Pew Research Center, and just 27 percent voted for Romney.
“The united efforts of the Hispanics with the Obama campaign and the Hispanic caucuses throughout Florida made the difference in the Democratic Party winning Florida for Obama,” Jose Fernandez said.
Eddie Fernandez, an attorney with Shutts & Bowen in Orlando who is active in conservative politics, thinks Democrats’ inroads into Florida’s Latinos were due not to Republican values, but to the Republicans’ late appeal.
“I think Republicans’ view of Hispanics, and I am going to say maybe women and other minorities as well, is as someone you need to outreach to during an election year, rather than groups that are integral to the party, he said. “That’s what needs to change.”