'They all want Florida ... bad'

How Florida's Hillsborough County votes has been the way America has voted in every presidential election since 1960, bar one. Alice Brennan reports.

How Florida's Hillsborough County votes has been the way America has voted in every presidential election since 1960, bar one. Alice Brennan reports.

A FAMILY OF five Hispanic Americans sits around a small, beaten down cafe in west Tampa, Florida, eating sandwiches and sipping on strong, sweet coffee. Their conversation about the latest soap stars and a cousin's new car gives no indication it could well be them, or another local family like them, that will decide who will be the next president of the United States.

Because whether they know it or not, Hispanics are the most targeted demographic within a deeply contested county, right in the centre of one of the toughest battleground states in the country.

The vote in Hillsborough County, population 1.2 million, has predicted every presidential election since 1960, bar one. With a 75 per cent white, 17 per cent black, and 24 per cent Hispanic population, it's a perfectly proportioned microcosm of the US.

Republican suburbs are sprinkled around solid liberal-voting city blocks. Church spires tower over manicured lawns which play neighbour to strawberry farms and gated communities. Young people, mid-western retirees and Cuban, Puerto Rican and Islander migrants shop in the same sprawling malls as military personnel and young couples. From the white-washed houses with their golf buggies parked outside to the cobbled streets of Ybor City to the massive seaport, Hillsborough is America, writ small.

Market researcher Lorin Drake says Hillsborough is more than just a demographic and geographic blueprint for the rest of the US. "Both parties really need its vote, so it's a hotbed for political polling and campaigning," he said.

"You can bet how Hillsborough votes is how Florida will vote, and how Florida votes could very well determine who wins the election," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist from Tampa University.

Not only is Hillsborough a crucial county, but it's tight too. Drake's polling shows Barack Obama scraping in with 53 per cent of the vote, the same as his final result in 2008. "It's uncanny just how much of a crystal ball this place is," he says.

While both parties realise the significance of the vote in Florida, the stakes are higher for Mitt Romney.

"For Mitt Romney this is a central piece of the puzzle," says veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "Without Florida I don't see how he can get to 270 electoral college votes [the minimum he needs to win]."

Of the 104 college votes up for grabs, Florida holds 29. For Obama on the other hand, Florida is an offset to other undecided states if he has trouble in Wisconsin, Michigan or Iowa, Florida is his insurance policy.

"They all want Florida . . . bad, and you can see how hard they're fighting for it, right here in Hillsborough," Drake says.

Hillsborough was the nexus of Obama's 2008 victory. His shoe-leather, micro-targeted campaigning won him young people, first-time voters and Latinos, and it caught the Republicans off-guard. This time around, observers say Romney won't roll over so easily.

"2008 was just embarrassing," says Hoe Brown, Romney's campaign head for Hillsborough. "That won't happen again, I can assure you. What we've got here is a war. And we're going to win . . . We've got to win."

Brown, a business manager and 26-year veteran of local politics, enthusiastically greets retirees who pull up to a local campaign office in trucks and SUVs, looking for Romney posters for their front lawns.

"Welcome!" he says, grabbing hold of their hands and thanking them for their support. The small satellite office, perched next to a medical supplies shop in downtown Tampa, is run by Bob and Rebecca DeBoer, two seniors so determined to "take back the White House" they've donated two months of their time to the campaign.

"This country can't continue down the same road," Bob DeBoer says indignantly. "We have waged war on socialism, right here!"

For the DeBoers, gun control, taxes and unemployment are the flash points in this campaign. "You see what's happening in Syria?" he says. "That's what happens when a government has control of guns, that's when they take over and you become a slave."

Plaid-shirted seniors repeat DeBoer's sentiments many times through the course of the morning as they come and go from the office.

Along the I-4 highway, about 30 kilometres from where the DeBoers are running their local operation, lies the rural community of Plant City. With a population of 35,000, Plant City is best known for its strawberry farms and religion. One of the most conservative pockets of the county, there are double the number of churches in Plant City than anywhere else in the Hillsborough area.

On a stormy Sunday evening, Pastor Michael Lewis delivers his sermon to about 300 attendees at his First Baptist Church. He's talking about "decisions" and their consequences. Several high-ranking Republicans, including the local branch treasurer and former speaker of the house in Florida, are in attendance.

While he doesn't dictate how his congregation should vote, Pastor Lewis has strong ideas about what a government's role should be.

"As good Christians who live by the book, we believe in the sanctity of life and the institution of marriage," he tells The Age. "I simply couldn't vote for a leader who didn't believe in those same principles."

And Lewis' message has some reach in this relatively small community. He estimates about 3000 constituents regularly attend his services.

The town is also home to several thousand Midwestern retirees, who have migrated up the coast to settle, "They're mostly conservative and they're mostly white," says Art Wood, president of the Hillsborough Republicans. "Plant City is definitely a strong Republican enclave."

But while social issues are important in Plant City, down in Tampa, where the electorate is preoccupied with higher than national average unemployment and rising foreclosures rates (up 47 per cent in the first half of 2012), Hoe Brown is drawing attention to the economy and lobbying high-income voters in places such as Davis Island near the downtown area. He's also tapping into the conservative Cuban and Puerto Rican vote in the city, for whom immigration policy isn't as much of a flash point as it is elsewhere in Florida.

"[Romney] has a better chance of getting the Latino vote here than almost anywhere," Brown says. And he needs it. Without the Latino vote, it's likely he won't win in Hillsborough. Fortunately for Romney, he has the establishment on his side. Republicans hold five of the six top political jobs in the state.

Unlike Romney, Obama doesn't need Hillsborough or maybe, even Florida. But his success there four years ago isn't leaving anyone on his team complacent. And, if the more than 73 Obama campaign offices in Florida are any indication, the party is not turning up its nose at the state.

In 2008, pollsters and pundits were wowed at Obama's ability to get first-time voters to commit, and nowhere did he do it better than in Hillsborough. But the voting virgins are not such fertile ground now. So what is his plan this time?

"It's to get them back to the polls, and it's to capture the Latino vote," says Steve Schale, who devised the 2008 campaign in Florida. "The Hispanic vote in Florida will be key in determining whether Obama wins or loses," says Victor Di Maio, president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida. "We've doubled in size over the last decade, in Hillsborough alone."

Indeed, the Hispanic population has shot up from 11 per cent of the total to 13 per cent in Hillsborough County since the last election.

For the past year, thousands of local Democratic team leaders have been hosting house parties and voter registration drives here and Obama has been campaigning in Hillsborough under the banner of Organising for America a Democratic National Committee subsidiary for three years. The creeping grassroots movement of 2008 hasn't let up, it's just shifted focus.

As an indication of that, Obama's Florida headquarters was moved to a building at the centre of Ybor City, Tampa's historic Cuban cigar-manufacturing enclave.

Stencilled Obama prints and hurriedly scrawled lists of registration tallies line the walls at one of the offices. In one corner a 22-year-old woman gives a voting tutorial to an older couple. In another corner, hushing a two-year-old who had been throwing paper planes, a young Dominican man named Raqueem makes phone calls in Spanish, reminding people of the looming enrolment deadline. For Raqueem and almost half of the 300,000-strong Hispanic population in Hillsborough County, immigration is at the top of their list of concerns.

"I just feel, with the Dream Act and other immigration policy, that Obama is on my side," he says.

The other flash points are healthcare and retirement: "I want to know that my brother who has diabetes, and my parents who are getting old, will be looked after."

Obama and his fund-raisers have poured millions of campaign dollars into the thriving Hispanic media in Florida, even releasing a commercial with him urging constituents to enrol in Spanish.

"Romney's son made an ad in Spanish, too," says Di Maio. "But it didn't really resonate here people felt like it was disingenuous many of them feel like they're part of the 47 per cent and they just can't relate to him."

In the past six months, the Obama campaign team has formerly registered 65,000 of the Hispanic vote in the Hillsborough county, which takes us back to the West Tampa Sandwich Shop.

"You could call us a hub," says the cafe's owner, 38-year-old Andy Russell. "We serve between 100 and 300 customers a day, and most of them are Hispanic."

The Sandwich Shop is a far cry from the ritzier La Terracita up the road, where Romney was pictured last month with a Cuban lunch and a cafe con leche in his hands. But this little sandwich shop is the perfect symbol for the zeitgeist Democrats have tapped into.

Obama dropped in by surprise just a few weeks ago. Pictures of a relaxed President, sleeves rolled up, hugging Latino grandmothers and chatting with young men plaster the walls of the cafe. "He even spoke a bit of Spanish," Russell smiles.

Families here are likely to vote on social and economic issues what will make them feel secure, while not compromising their ethics. Financial security is often a key motivating factor in the Latino vote, polls say.

"But we're mostly Democrats here," says Russell, "I can't imagine voting Republican, it just doesn't sit right."

And that's what Obama is counting on in the lead-up to the November 6 vote in Hillsborough, in Florida and across America.

The latest polls show Obama thrashing Romney among the 24 million Latino voters by 77 per cent to 23 per cent, falling well short of Republican strategy estimates.

"This is going to be a tight one," Democrat campaigner Victor Di Maio says. "And if it becomes a Bush v Gore situation, a handful of votes are going to decide it all and those votes might well be that family of five in that sandwich shop."

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