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Why Florida Remains So Close

Four years ago, Obama only carried Florida by 2.8 points while winning by 7.3 points nationally. Since the first presidential debate, pundits have downplayed Obama's chances in the Sunshine State, but recent polls show Obama performing about as well in Florida as he is nationally, suggesting that Obama’s standing has remained relatively resilient since 2008. Not only is Florida still in play at this late stage, it's not a surprise that it's remained tight in a close election.

Paradoxically, Obama’s resilience in Florida is partially related to his weakness there four years ago. In other states like Wisconsin, Iowa, Virginia, and Ohio, Romney will make gains by running up the score in white, rural areas where Obama outperformed Kerry by a wide margin. But McCain already ran up the score among Florida's rural voters in 2008. The Florida Panhandle and northern Florida was Obama’s weakest region of any battleground state, as he performed far worse than Kerry among these culturally southern, predominantly white, rural voters. One particularly pronounced example was Liberty County, a tiny county in the Panhandle where Obama lost by 44 points compared to Kerry’s 29-point defeat in 2004. Given that Liberty County is 18 percent black, McCain must have made extraordinary gains among the county's white voters. Romney will still make gains in these areas, but it's hard to envision the ten-plus point gains that Romney could plausibly see in southwestern Virginia or across Wisconsin and Iowa.

Of course, Romney doesn't need 10-plus point gains in a state that Obama only carried by 2.8 points and Florida has plenty of other swing regions and swing voters where Romney can and will make additional improvements. Many of these are concentrated along the vaunted I-4 corridor, and particularly in the Tampa/St. Petersburg metropolitan area. Romney will also need outsized gains in southwest Florida and Miami Dade County, where Romney could potentially reverse Obama's gains among Cuban voters. But Romney will find it more difficult to reverse Obama's improvement over Kerry's performance in Jacksonville and Orlando-Kissimmee, where strong black turnout and a growing and heavily Democratic Puerto Rican population have resulted in durable changes.

With Romney all but assured to make enough gains to cover Obama's modest 2.8 point win, Obama's path to victory requires him to compensate for losses by capitalizing on demographic changes, and particularly Florida's growing black and non-Cuban Hispanic populations. Voter registration numbers show that the white share of Florida's registered voters declined from 69 percent to 66.5 percent over the last four years. More than 150,000 more African Americans are registered than four years ago and the number of registered Hispanics increased by 300,000. The number of registered Hispanic Democrats increased by 131,000 compared to just 30,000 for Republicans. If Obama can turnout these newly registered voters, it could go quite a ways toward making up for losses elsewhere.

It's hardly apparent whether demographic changes will provide Obama the state, since it depends both on turnout among newly registered voters and the extent to which Romney can make gains among the rest of Florida's electorate. But polls conducted since October 15 show Romney ahead by a slight .9 point margin in the Sunshine State, making Florida one of the best picks for "closest state" on Election Day.