ORLANDO—Bill Snyder looks up from his plate of sliced chicken and roasted potatoes and laughs good-naturedly when asked about the presidential campaign. But he has a serious point to make. "I view history as going in cycles," says Snyder, a 60-year-old Democrat from Apopka. "We just went through a cycle where [corporate America] got everything they wanted at the expense of the working people and consumers. Things got screwed up, and now things are swinging back." Snyder's 88-year-old mother, Naomi, sitting next to him at a luncheon honoring community volunteers, agrees. "For the past eight years," says the former vocational counselor and Republican turned Democrat, "they've taken from the poor to give to the rich." She and her son say that it is time to put a Democrat in the White House, and they are voting for Barack Obama.
Others at the table have a different view. Betty Hayner, 63, a retired office worker who leans Republican, says, "I'm so disappointed in the entire climate but especially the serious financial problems we're having—and the bailout," which she fears will be too expensive. She says she's undecided on who she'll support for president.
Melba Houghton, 87, a retired secretary and a Republican, says she is a child of the Depression and her top concern is the economy. "I just wish that our candidates would tell us how they will solve the problems that exist rather than just talking about the problems," says Houghton, who also is undecided between Obama and Republican nominee John McCain.
So it goes in Florida a month before Election Day. The Democrats seem to be gaining momentum, as they are across the country, largely because of dissatisfaction with how Republican President George W. Bush has handled the economy. But the race is by no means decided, and recent polls show that Obama and McCain are tied in the Sunshine State in the battle for its 27 electoral votes.
The contest is so close, in fact, that it has revived fears of a repeat of the debacle of 2000, when an extremely tight campaign between Bush and Democrat Al Gore ended in widespread voting irregularities and a bitterly disputed outcome. The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 to stop the recount, meaning Bush won Florida by fewer than 600 popular votes, and that gave him the White House.
Both McCain and Obama, and their running mates, are spending millions of dollars on ads, and they have campaigned aggressively in the crucial Orlando area and the remainder of the Interstate 4 corridor, which contains a trove of swing voters and runs from Tampa on the west coast to Daytona on the east. The Orlando area is the home of Walt Disney World and many other theme parks and recreational attractions. It is heavily dependent upon tourism, which could suffer badly if the economy gets much worse. The unemployment rate locally is about 6 percent, compared with 4 percent a year ago, and there are fears that it will go much higher.
Voter registration for the Orlando-area congressional primary last July indicated rough political parity between the two major parties—about 159,000 Republicans and 157,000 Democrats. Statewide, Democrats' registrations have surged, and they now surpass Republicans, 4.45 million to 3.95 million.
The odds have been against Obama, since the state went for Bush in the past two elections. But Democratic strategists argue that Floridians want change and are ready to turn away from the GOP. Republicans say the state will stay in their column because it is basically conservative and will opt for McCain's experience over Obama's charisma.
To win here, Obama needs a strong turnout among young voters, who comprise an estimated 16 percent of the electorate in the state compared with those over 60, who make up 31 percent of voters. The young tend to support Obama with big majorities, but pollsters say their willingness to actually show up on Election Day is always open to question. Democratic strategists say Obama has a better chance of greatly boosting turnout in the African-American community, where he is wildly popular as the first black presidential nominee of a major party.
The Rev. O'Hara Black, senior pastor of Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, an African-American congregation, says people in his community are excited about Obama but few report being included in public-opinion surveys, so he believes their potential impact has been underestimated. "Pollsters don't poll my barbershop, where the guys from the 'hood are talking about the election," Black says. He adds that many in his congregation are suffering hard times, facing foreclosure on their houses and having trouble paying bills, so they are highly motivated to vote.