JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Eric Allen was 18 and voting in his first presidential election when he chose Barack Obama over John McCain. Four years older now and looking for a job, he is just the kind of voter Republican Mitt Romney needs to win – and win big – in northeast Florida’s Duval County and take the most coveted of the toss-up states.
“I voted for him last time just to see the change,” Allen said of Obama, “and there was no change.”
For Lashawn Williams, the excitement she felt from Obama’s first run is still there in spite of an economy in the doldrums. The 39-year-old bank employee is volunteering for the re-election campaign – and telling those who are frustrated with the president that the blame is misplaced.
“People said, ‘Oh, well, he’s in there and he’s not changing anything and blah, blah, blah.’ But he can’t do it by himself,” Williams said during her lunch break in downtown Jacksonville. “Everything he’s tried to do he’s gotten resistance from the Republican Party.”
The Obama campaign targeted the Jacksonville area with surprising success in 2008, nearly equaling Republican John McCain in Duval County votes as Obama carried the state. Whether Obama can do as well again may determine if he takes Florida a second time – and with it a second term.
In GOP regions of swing states, Republicans must turn out in huge numbers to overcome Democratic advantages elsewhere. Republican-friendly regions like southeast Ohio and southwest Virginia share northeast Florida’s mission of overwhelming Democrats at the polls.
For both campaigns, Florida is one of the keys to winning the White House. It’s even more important for Romney, whose paths to Electoral College victory are few without the state’s 29 votes.
Even though each side has already spent $60 million on TV and radio ads, Republicans are expected to spend even more than Democrats in the campaign’s final weeks.
Polling shows a tight race in Florida with Obama slightly ahead in some surveys, making the Democrat’s turnout in Duval County essential to his overall strategy.
Sprawling and traditionally conservative, the Jacksonville area went for Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980. After that, Democrats all but conceded Duval County, with its Southern feel and strong military presence. Obama, however, persuaded enough moderate Republicans, conservative Democrats and independents to give his message of hope and change a chance to cancel out the usual Republican advantage there.
The Democratic campaign was more competitive in 2008 in part because it built excitement in Duval County’s large black community with voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts to support the nation’s first black presidential candidate on a major party ticket.
Duval County has more than 516,000 registered voters out of a total population of about 871,000. The percentage of black residents, 29.8, is nearly double the statewide figure. The campaign will have to keep the same enthusiasm among black voters to keep Duval competitive.
Just as Democrats are spending money on advertising, voter turnout and events – Obama spoke at a Jacksonville rally in July and Michelle Obama has visited the area twice – Republicans are trying to put more resources toward restoring the overwhelming turnout they’ve enjoyed for almost a generation.
“We have to drive up the score here so that we can make sure that we make up ground in other areas,” Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus said in Jacksonville in August. “We’re going to have a plan in this county to not just win, but to try to win as big as possible. Winning here isn’t enough. You have to do great in places you’re strong.”
The Romney campaign didn’t wait for the former Massachusetts governor to secure the nomination to set up a presence in the city. Unlike McCain, who was far outspent, they’re matching the huge resources Obama is pumping into the area, said Brett Doster, a Florida-based political consultant who is advising the campaign and ran George W. Bush’s 2004 Florida campaign.
Along with a stronger ground game – Doster said it’s bigger and better organized than when Bush carried Duval County by 61,000 votes – the Romney campaign believes it will be able to win back Republicans who supported Obama.
“We were at a unique time in history. People were frustrated,” Doster said. “I do not think they’re going to put their faith back in him again.”
That’s the case with Lynn Fernandez, a shoe repair shop owner and a Republican who voted for Obama four years ago. Now she’s voting for Romney. While she blamed Congress for lack of progress in Washington, she’s taking it out on the president and hoping, not so optimistically, that a change can break Washington gridlock.
“Whoever gets in there is still going to have a difficult time because we’re in such a mess. No matter how hard a president fights, he still has to fight the Senate and Congress,” said Fernandez, 58. “I voted for Obama last time. Not that he didn’t try. We’ve dug ourselves in such a big hole it’s going to be a long time before we get out of it no matter who gets in there.”
Larry Mordecai Jr., a 49-year-old Republican who until recently worked in the mortgage industry, said he was proud to vote for Obama in 2008 because the country was divided and he liked Obama’s enthusiasm. He thought he would be an inspirational president. While he hasn’t completely made up his mind, Mordecai is leaning toward Romney and wants to watch the debates before making a decision.
“I’m highly disappointed. It’s going to take a lot of convincing on President Obama’s part to really sway me in that direction,” Mordecai said. “I’m not enthusiastic about either party and most of that would have to do with my lack of confidence in Congress.”
James Murphy, however, is a Republican who supported Obama in 2008 and will vote for him again. Not that he has anything against Romney, saiding, “I think he’s a fine man.” But he said it’s Republicans in general who have convinced him to stick with Obama.
“My mind’s been pretty much made up by how the Republicans have acted,” Murphy said, adding that the GOP has obstructed Obama from seeking solutions for what’s best for the country. “It’s reprehensible. It’s very much guided by the tea party and the religious right.”
Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bsfarrington