ELECTIONATE OCTOBER 16, 2012
While it’s unclear whether Romney has made big gains in swing states like Ohio or Iowa, there’s not much question that Romney has made big gains in Florida, the largest battleground state. In polls conducted after the first debate, Romney leads by an average of 1.8 points compared to an Obama edge of 2.6 points in post-DNC, pre-debate surveys. Unlike Ohio, Romney’s 4.4 point improvement is similar to Romney’s gain of 5 points in a direct comparison with pre-debate counterparts.
What’s driving Romney’s gains? Both PPP and NBC/WSJ/Marist found Romney’s favorability ratings improving, with a majority of voters in both states now holding a favorable impression of the Republican nominee. In Ohio, Romney appears to remain unpopular, which appears at least partially responsible for his struggle to regain the lead in the Buckeye State.
Polls also suggest that Obama has a problem with Democratic unity. In PPP, Rasmussen, and ARG, Obama only averages 83 percent of Democrats while Romney is near 90 percent among Republican partisans. NBC/WSJ/Marist still shows Obama in the lead, in part by finding Obama with 93 percent of Democrats. A more unified Democratic coalition could bring the race to a dead heat, since the polls suggest that Romney has a narrow lead among independents (Rasmussen and Marist dissent with a large Obama and Romney advantage among independents, respectively) and Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans in the Sunshine State.
If there’s any element of the Democratic coalition where Obama might be struggling, it could be Latino voters. But here, the evidence is somewhat mixed. On the one hand, Mason Dixon, PPP, and NBC/WSJ/Marist all show Romney either ahead or with Obama leading by only a few points among Hispanics, even though Obama won Florida Latinos by 15 points four years ago. Similarly, an FIU poll of Hispanics in Florida showed Obama leading by 6 points among a large sample and found Obama struggling among Cuban voters, despite strength among Puerto Ricans. But other polls suggest Obama might be holding up better among Florida Latinos. Rasmussen shows Obama ahead by 55-37 among non-white or black voters and UNF shows Obama leading 59-33 among Hispanics. A Latino Decisions survey conducted prior to the first presidential debate found Obama leading 62-31.
Given that these subsamples are so small and the consistency of Obama's big lead among Latinos in national surveys, this evidence isn't yet sufficient to be sure that Obama has a problem with Hispanic Floridians. The difficulty of polling Florida's Latino population is exacerbated by the unusual diversity of Florida's Latino population, which includes Republican-leaning Cubans and Democratic-leaning Puerto Ricans. For instance, Mason Dixon found Romney up by 10 in the Orlando region and leading by a slight margin among Hispanics, which might mean that they missed Orlando’s large, growing, and overwhelmingly Democratic Puerto Rican population that all but assures that Obama wins Orange and Osceola counties by double digits.
But even if Romney doesn’t lead among Latino voters, Obama's margin still looks like it might be lower than it was four years ago. At the very least, the evidence raises the real possibility that Obama is struggling among Cuban voters, since the FIU poll sampled both Cubans and Puerto Ricans and found Obama underperforming among Cuban voters. In 2008, Obama improved on Kerry’s margin in Miami Dade County by 90,000 voters, representing nearly 40 percent of Obama’s statewide margin of victory. Many of Obama’s gains were due to improvement among Cuban Americans and Obama would prefer to hold onto to those gains in a tight race. On the other hand, the FIU poll was landline-only and many believe that Obama's '08 gains were due to younger, third generation Cuban Americans who might be less likely to own a landline.
Regardless of whether Obama’s decline in Florida is attributable to losses among Cubans, Democrats, or voters with a better impression of Romney, the big picture is quite clear. Unlike other states where the evidence is more mixed, Obama has suffered sizable losses in Florida and Romney holds a slight lead. Given a close race nationally and Florida’s traditional Republican-tilt, this isn’t surprising. From a certain perspective, the fact that Romney isn’t further ahead might be considered good news for the president—Florida voted 5 points more Republican than the country in 2008, but Obama remains competitive in a tight national race. But although a competitive race forces Romney to spend in the Sunshine State, an Obama victory would have been all but sufficient to win the election and Romney now appears positioned to avoid check mate in the southeast, at least for the moment.