JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to politics.
We decided to travel to Florida late last week, when President Obama headed there for a couple of days of campaigning. As we know now, events in Colorado led him to cancel part of the trip. But we were there long enough to do some reporting on just how tough his challenge is to win reelection in that critical battleground.
What was supposed to be a chance for the president to make the case for himself in voter-rich Florida was abruptly cut short by last Friday’s mass shooting.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am so moved by your support, but there are going to be other days for politics. This, I think, is a day for prayer and reflection.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Left behind is a campaign with its work more than cut out for it in the state he won by just over 2 percentage points in 2008, and which has since been pounded by persistent job losses and one of the nation’s worst foreclosure crises.
As if that weren’t enough, confusion over his health care reform plan has led to mixed reactions among many voters in the Sunshine State.
Obama supporter Wendy Fallon, who worked for years in a doctor’s office, says she saw up close why the law is needed.
WENDY FALLON, Fla.: And so many of them were uninsured. They had jobs that didn’t provide insurance. They can’t afford it on their own. And here they have a desperately injured child that has got to be cared for. It was heartbreaking.
WOMAN: How about one, two, three? You like that?
WOMAN: Oh, that’s not fair.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But a few hours away on Florida’s Atlantic coast, canasta-playing women friends were skeptical.
SANDY LEVINE, Florida: I don’t care for his health plan.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it about the health plan that bothers you?
SANDY LEVINE: I’m not quite sure, to be honest with you. There’s just something about it that I don’t care for.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Florida Atlantic University political science Professor Kevin Wagner says that sentiment is widespread in Florida.
KEVIN WAGNER, Florida Atlantic University: He can’t change his record. He has to live or die with the Affordable Care Act. So, that’s going to be something that he has to try and change the perception of, especially among older voters.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The president did defend his plan before an audience of seniors in Palm Beach last week.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: But imagine if you had been unlucky and ended up getting laid off at the age of 55 or 57, and you lose your health insurance or because of a preexisting condition you can’t get it, or it costs so much you could never even afford it.
That’s not right. That’s not who we are. So that’s why we passed the Affordable Care Act. It was the right thing to do.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JUDY WOODRUFF: If it were only health care the president’s team had to explain, they would have their hands full.
But as in much of the rest of the country, Mr. Obama is being held responsible, fairly or unfairly, for the ongoing housing crisis, even as it shows signs of abating here.
DEIRDRE NEWTON, Fla.: Well, I’m in the real estate business. Voters now here in Florida are voting because of housing, the foreclosure issues, short sales, the banks. It’s really a problem, not just here in South Florida, but all throughout Florida.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, of course, the economy. Florida’s unemployment rate stood at 8.6 percent in June, stable, but stubbornly high. This may be the biggest mountain the president has to climb to persuade voters he’s doing enough to encourage job creation.
TOM MASTERS, mayor of Riviera Beach, Fla.: He came in trying to give businesses monies and all kinds of things that he did. People were excited about that. I think now that people are really seeing and saying to the president, what more can you do? You know, I think they’re really saying, “Mr. President, what do you have to offer now? We’re still with you, but you have got to continue to do more.”
JUDY WOODRUFF: Those words from strong Obama supporter and the mayor of Riviera Beach, Tom Masters, are echoed by the group of women at Century Village, the well-known retirement center in Palm Beach, which is normally a stronghold for Democratic candidates.
BARBARA CORNISH, Fla.: I’m concerned about even money I have put away for the college fund for my grandchildren. I mean, I worked hard to be able to make a better life for them, hoping that the government would stand behind me. And I’m looking for the right person who is going to do this for us.
JUDY WOODRUFF: To underscore how complex the Florida political challenge is, it helps to look at the NewsHour’s Vote 2012 Map Center, which highlights the big counties Democrats need to win overwhelmingly to have a chance to repeat the president’s success four years ago.
He needs large margins of victory in the southeast counties of Miami-Dade, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, as well as strong showings in the home counties for Orlando and Tampa, the famous I-4 Corridor. But votes the president once could almost take for granted as his base, Jewish, African-American and young people, now need tending.
TOM MASTERS: The first African-American president we have ever had, in the community, people are excited about it. I do feel that the president has got to come back to his base. He’s got to make those visits to the inner cities. So, I do think that African-Americans and other minorities and his base will continue to stay with him.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But political scientist Kevin Wagner says that is exactly what the Obama campaign has to worry about.
KEVIN WAGNER: He has a real enthusiasm difference this time around. Last time, he had a very enthusiastic Democratic base. He had a lot of youth voters out. He did very well among the standard Democratic groups. And so his turnout among those numbers was very, very good.
This time around, he has a real problem with enthusiasm among the Democratic base.
WOMAN: I think we have got to really shuffle them a little bit better, too.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Sure enough, of the three canasta players who voted for Obama in 2008, two said they may not vote for him again.
LOLLY POLLACK, Fla.: Well, I thought he would be good for the people, especially the elder people. I thought he would be terrific for Medicare. And I thought he’d visit Israel, but he hasn’t in the years that he’s been in office. That bothered me.
JUDY WOODRUFF: At a charity race, we met young homebuilder Rick Sebastian, who says business is picking up. He plans to vote for Obama again, not with great excitement, but because he doesn’t like his other choice.
Is there something about him that gives you confidence that the next four years will be…
RICK SEBASTIAN, Fla.: Just more confidence than the other competitor, honestly. It’s not like he’s a home run. It’s two sandwiches. One has got salami and the other one got has no meat. So you are going to take the one with at least the piece of meat on it, right?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama campaign strategists say they know they have a lot of work still to do in Florida to win back former supporters. But they also point to potential new voters they can pick up among immigrants to the state and the many new independent voters not aligned with either party.
MAN: We will change our mailings a little bit.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Democratic congressional candidate Jim Roach lives on the southwest coach, traditionally a strong Republican area. But that’s changing.
JIM ROACH, Democratic congressional candidate: Since 1995, when the Republicans had nearly 60 percent of the voters in this area, that has dropped steadily every year, to where Lee County now is about 44 percent Republican.
The Democrats have held fairly steady at around 30 percent. But this huge group of voters, 26 percent of our voters, are no party affiliation. And they’re the ones that decide the election. And they’re the ones asking the harder questions. And I believe we’re getting to them this year.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But the independent voters we found strolling around Fort Myers on a Friday night were not ready to jump on anyone’s bandwagon.
Is there something President Obama could say or do that would make you feel more comfortable?
JANE FRIED, Fla: He seems to be all over the map: I’m going to fix — I’m going to get my hands in health care. I’m going to my hands in the taxes. It’s sort of comes off like he’s spreading himself very thin. And I understand you want to please everybody all the time.
But we all know that that can’t happen. That’s just not realistic. If you’re going to champion something, pick one thing, see it through to the end and do it right. If I saw that out of either candidate, that would persuade me.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Political independent Shannon Densham says the candidates haven’t talked enough about issues.
SHANNON DENSHAM, Fla.: The platforms have yet to be really outlined well, in my opinion. And until they really get down to the issues and what they stand for and what they believe in, my vote is still up in the air.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Her friend, Paul Kalka, a Republican who wishes there was a viable third-party option, said neither candidate impresses him.
PAUL KALKA, Fla.: Neither candidate has come out and said what they can do for us. They just keep wanting to say, the other guy can’t do it for us.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The reality is, however, that criticizing the other guy is what Florida voters can expect for much of the next three-and-a-half months, as long as both campaigns think that gives their guy the best shot at winning. And most polls show the race in that state is very close.
You can explore how Florida’s vote changes Electoral College scenarios for each candidate in the NewsHour’s Vote 2012 Map Center. You can play around with the numbers there and share your predictions with your friends using Facebook and Twitter.