Focus on Florida: Winning the I-4 corridor
This is the first part of a new semi-regular series I will be doing called Focus on Florida. The purpose of this series is to give people insight into the politics of Florida and how Obama will make a play for Florida’s 27 electoral votes. Despite Obama’s poor showing in the delegate-less Florida primary, Florida is definitely a state than can go blue this year with enough effort from the Obama campaign. So far, the Obama campaign has risen to the challenge, and shown that they intend to make Florida a top priority this year.
The first diary in this series will be about winning in the I-4 corridor. For those of you unfamiliar with Florida geography, the I-4 corridor refers to the area in Florida that borders the 132 mile stretch of the I-4 highway, which runs spans central Florida from Tampa in the West to Daytona Beach in the East. For those of you familiar with Florida politics, you already know that the I-4 corridor is considered the holy grail of Florida politics. Win the I-4 corridor, and you’re almost guaranteed to win the state. With North Florida and South Florida usually cancelling each other out (North Florida going Republican, South Florida going Democratic), Central Florida is the key battleground area up for grabs in the state.
The Washington Times profiled the I-4 corridor in January in the run up to the primary election.
“We kind of laughingly call it the highway of heaven for the candidates, because if they win I-4, they win Florida,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “The I-4 corridor is the new growth part of the state, and the most politically competitive part of the state.”
More than 40 percent of Florida’s registered voters live in counties straddling the interstate, which includes the burgeoning Orlando area and popular retirement centers like Lakeland and Winter Haven, while in between are millions of acres of citrus groves and scrub pine woods.
Competing in the I-4 corridor is no easy feat. The corridor is diverse racially and geographically, with a mix of white, African American, and Hispanic voters, and mix of cities such as Orlando, Tampa, and Daytona, and the wide areas of rural land that connect those cities. It is home to two major media markets, the Orlando and Tampa media market, the latter of which is the most expensive in the state (it is also the 2nd largest in the state, and 13th largest in the nation).
Competing in this area isn’t always easy, but the Obama campaign has shown signs that they will make this area the focus of their Florida campaign. For the purpose trying to be concise, this article will focus primarily on the efforts underway in the Tampa and Orlando metro areas.
The Tampa and Orlando metro areas are among the largest and most competitive metro areas in the state. They are the 2nd and 3rd largest metro areas in the state, and 19th and 27th largest in the nation, respectively. Together, there are almost 5 million people living in the two areas. On top of being large, these areas have also been extremely competitive in past elections. Hillsborough county, which contains the city of Tampa, went for bush by about 30,000 votes (7%) in 2004, but only 11,000 votes in 2000. Pinellas county, which borders Hillsborough and contains the cities of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, went for Bush by less than 250 votes out of 450,000 in 2004, the closest county in the state. However, in 2000, the county went for Gore by 16,000 votes. Orange county, which contain Orlando, went for Kerry by less than 1000 votes in 2004, but went for Gore by about 6000 votes in 2000 (numbers can be found here and here).
With the size and competitiveness of these areas in mind, the Obama campaign has made the I-4 area the main focus of it’s Florida campaign.
Last week, the campaign officially opened their campaign in Ybor city (the historic Cuban district of Tampa), which is located at the West of the I-4 corridor. The office opening was packed by around 300-400 supporters, along with the media and local dignitaries.
From the St. Petersburg Times
A diverse and enthusiastic crowd filled the sprawling offices of Barack Obama’s Florida presidential campaign headquarters in Ybor City for its grand opening Wednesday.
The event marked the official opening of an Obama campaign office in the state. Florida campaign director Steve Schale said it will be the first of many.
“We will have the largest and most comprehensive political operation this state has ever seen,” he said.
Plans call for opening satellite offices elsewhere in Tampa and Pinellas County. The campaign also will open offices in areas Schale said have typically been given little attention by Democrats, including Duval County, Gadsden County and St. Augustine.
The office will eventually hold about 40 staffers, with many more being dispatched into satellite offices in the region. There are already about 30 full time staffers in Hillsborough county, along with dozens of Obama fellows, which are summer interns focused largely on voter registration. However, official staffers are just one small piece of the ground game in Florida. Most of the ground game relies on the massive volunteer base Barack has built up in Florida.
The ban on campaigning in Florida during the primary had a lot of negative side effects, but one very positive side effect was the creation and growth of strong grassroots volunteer organizations. Without any help from the campaign in Chicago, volunteers in Florida were responsible for doing everything ourselves when it came to organizing for the primary. Luckily, we rose to the challenge.
In Hillsborough county the primary led to the creation of the Tampa Bay O-Train, which went on to become one of the largest and most active grassroots organizations in the state of Florida. Covering the critical counties of Hillsborough and Pinellas (home to over 2 million people and rapidly growing), the Tampa Bay O-Train was created to help organize Senator Obama’s first trip to Florida in April 2007. Since then, the Tampa Bay O-Train was responsible for putting together numerous events throughout the state of Florida. In addition to organizing in Florida, where they knew their actions would net Senator Obama no additional delegates, the O-Train also focused it’s energy on other states. By the end of the primary, the O-Train had sent nearly 100 volunteers to different states during the primary, with many volunteers travelling to multiple states during the course of the primary. Since then, the O-Train has grown into a large grassroots organization, with a member list with numbers reaching the thousands.
The Obama campaign has smartly decided not to mess with a good thing, and is keeping the O-Train fully operational as an equal partner with the campaign for events in the community. Already, the partnership has paid off for the area. Barack’s first visit to Florida this year was a rally in Tampa on May 21st, where 15,000 people showed up in the middle of the workday to hear Senator Obama speak. More recently, Senator Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-NG (who is awesome, in case anyone wanted to know) came to Tampa for a Women for Obama event co-hosted by Hillary Clinton’s former point woman in the state, Anna Cruz. You can see video of her visit below:
The grassroots operation is in full swing as well. Every day, voter registration events are being held at locations across Florida in addition to registering voters at big events, volunteers can be found registering voters at everyday locations, such as supermarkets and public parks. The campaign also officially kicked off it’s canvassing efforts, with over 100 separate canvasses set up state wide. Below are some photos from a Tampa canvas (from the Obama campaign).
In addition to the work going on in the west, the volunteers in the east have been holding down the fort as well. In a similar vein to the Tampa Bay O Train, Orlando4Obama was started up as a grassroots organization that now has over 1000 members. They appear to be extremely active in their area as well, including organizing several canvas for change events last weekend. One of the events, according to the RSVP numbers on MyBO, was attended by over 100 volunteers. That type of neighbor to neighbor contact 4 months before an election is extremely valuable in reaching out and bringing voters onboard with Senator Obama.
No matter how good a ground game a campaign has, the campaign will also need to fight an aggressive air battle as well. The campaign has recently gone on the air with it’s “Leadership” ad in both the Orlando and Tampa media markets. The ad highlights Senator Obama’s work with Chuck Hagel to secure loose nuclear weapons. You can see the video below:
Winning the I-4 corridor, particularly the Tampa and Orlando metro areas, will almost certainly deliver Barack Obama the state of Florida. As they say down here, as goes the I-4 corridor, so goes the state. The Obama camp is doing everything in it’s power to make sure this area turns blue in November.