For those who associate Florida with beaches, nightclubs and retirement homes, a drive through the northern part of the state is a reality check. It’s the sort of place where barbecue is sold out of roadside trucks, bars advertise “bring your own gun” turkey hunts, and the occasional Confederate flag can be spotted.
In other words, it’s a region where voters can be expected to turn out in droves to try to defeat President Barack Obama – making it a key part of Republicans’ hopes of reclaiming the biggest battleground state.
Nestled into this slice of the Deep South, like a little liberal oasis, is the home of the University of Florida. Gainesville is the sort of left-leaning college town which, by this point four years ago, would have been covered in Obama posters, and filled with chatter about the potential for a barrier-smashing, transformational young President.
Conjuring a little of that magic again among students would be a big boost to Mr. Obama’s re-election prospects, which explains why the President has been touring a lot of campuses this year. But this past weekend, a reporter driving between the Republicans’ convention in Tampa and the Democrats’ in Charlotte could enter Gainesville and almost forget there’s an imminent election at all – a sign of just how much Mr. Obama has his work cut out for him this week and beyond.
As fans flocked toward the town’s giant stadium for the start of the college football season, which unlike politics is what people really wanted to talk about, a young woman gamely stood with pen and paper, trying to get them to register as voters. Such efforts have attracted considerable attention in Florida because of allegations that state Republicans have tried to use registration rules to suppress the turnout of certain groups, including students. But the woman’s sheet looked mostly empty; the best she could say about response was that most people were polite.
On a street corner a few blocks from the stadium, a middle-aged man with a megaphone was railing against “Obamacare.” A lone student did his best, somewhat drunkenly, to push back. Another was overheard lamenting that Clint Eastwood’s “crazy grandpa speech” at the GOP’s convention had “really bummed me out.” That was about it.
Evidence of student disinterest isn’t just anecdotal: polls show less overwhelming support among students for Mr. Obama than in 2008. And there are reports of smaller turnouts when he visits schools this time around, with some volunteers complaining they’re having a harder time getting students motivated.
It was probably always inevitable that some of Mr. Obama’s anything-is-possible sheen would wear off once he started governing, and the impact of economic stagnation on job prospects for graduates – pointed out repeatedly by Republicans last week – hardly encourages rallying around the incumbent.
Then there’s the mostly negative tone from both sides in the campaign’s early stages, which potentially turns off potential Obama supporters beyond just students.
At the pre-game festivities in Gainesville, a 30-something science teacher identified herself as a registered Democrat with an independent mind. She voted for Mr. Obama in 2008, after opting for George W. Bush in 2004, and while still sympathetic to the President isn’t sure what to do this time. She will skip watching the Democratic convention this week, just as she avoided the Republicans’, she said, because she finds all the hyper-partisanship off-putting.
That’s precisely the sort of cynicism that Mr. Obama cut through in his first run for the presidency. This week, he’ll try to do so again.
The convention will culminate, on Thursday evening, with a speech by the President at Charlotte’s NFL stadium. Thousands of students will reportedly be bussed in from surrounding areas to help ensure the stadium is full. But whether Mr. Obama can lift that crowd, and get those in towns like Gainesville to tune in at all, will be the tougher test.