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As hours tick down to Election Day, Florida looms large

Seniors have become the most coveted voting bloc in the swing state of Florida and some Central Florida retirees shared their concerns with NBCNews.com

BOCA RATON, FL. – The Sunshine State has earned a permanent prominence in America’s presidential elections and this year is no different. Both presidential candidates see their path to victory either enhanced or hindered by the outcome here. 

How important is Florida?  Listen to Vice President Joe Biden’s comments to Democratic campaign workers in Orlando on Saturday:  “If you guys produce, we win Florida.  We win Florida, this is all history man."

He added, “If you guys push Florida over, this thing becomes, uh, not close.”

Robert Wallis / Panos Pictures

In the key battleground state of Florida, divergent opinions separate voters with just over two weeks until the election.

A CNN poll released Friday showed a statistical tie in Florida, with Romney at 49 percent and Obama at 48 percent. Florida's dead heat between Romney and Obama reflects the state of the presidential race nationally: a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday finds that the two rivals each get 47 percent support among likely voters.

Times have changed. When Biden’s hero John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Florida had just 10 electoral votes, making it one of the less important states in winning the presidency.

The Sunshine State's political leaning  is hard to predict – just like the endless list of odd stories that keep popping up there. NBC News' Mark Potter reports from Orlando

But this year, Florida has nearly three times that number and the state has become indispensable to amassing the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, making it a fitting setting for the final debate between President Barack Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney Monday night in Boca Raton.

For Romney, the math is unmistakable. It is possible for him to amass the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency if he fails to carry Florida, but the he would have to sweep the rest of the battleground states or bring other states into his column that are currently holding steady for the president.

In contrast, Obama could win the presidency without Florida as long as he could hold on to Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire, all of which he won in 2004. That equation would hold true even if Obama were to lose Virginia, Ohio, and North Carolina, as well as Florida.

Will the race for the White House come down to Sunshine State? With the election tied, TODAY's Lester Holt reports from Florida to see how things are shaping up in the swing state.

Of course twelve years ago, Florida was the place where a mere 537 votes and a ruling by the United States Supreme Court decided the election for George W. Bush. The reason Florida keeps playing its recurring central role in presidential politics is that of the five states with the most electoral votes, it is now the only one that’s competitive in presidential elections.

In every presidential contest since 1980, there has been a strong correlation between each party’s share of the Florida vote and its national vote share. The only time since 1980 when Florida didn’t vote for the winner of the presidential election was in the tri-cornered 1992 race when George H.W. Bush narrowly won the state in his race against Bill Clinton, with third-party candidate Ross Perot getting 20 percent.

"One of the most terrifying things in the world is the idea that Florida would decide an election," said humorist, author and Florida resident Dave Barry. He suggested that Florida shouldn't be allowed to have electoral votes, and instead should give them to a responsible state, like Montana.

What’s often forgotten about Obama’s 2008 triumph is how close his margin of victory was in Florida.  Obama won Florida by fewer votes (236,450) than George W. Bush had won the state four years earlier (380,978).

In 2008, Obama won nine states that Bush had carried in 2004. Of the states that shifted from Bush to Obama, Obama’s winning percentage was the smallest in Indiana (49.9 percent), North Carolina (49.7 percent) and Florida (51 percent).

The task for Romney in the next 15 days becomes clear when you compare the Bush’s Florida victory in 2004 with Republican John McCain’s loss in the state in 2008.

One obvious place to start the comparison: As has often been noted, between 2004 and 2008, exit polls showed a massive shift in Latino voters in Florida from Bush to Obama. In 2004, Bush’s Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry won 44 percent of self-identified Latino voters in Florida, according to the exit poll interviews. Obama won 57 percent of Florida Latinos in 2008.

Another key part of the Florida electorate: Military and retired military voters in Duval County, the site of Naval Station Mayport and the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville.

In his 2004 victory, Bush’s biggest plurality in any Florida county was in Duval, which he won by more than 60,000 votes, with a total vote of more than 220,000.  Four years later McCain barely scraped by in Duval County, winning 9,600 fewer votes than Bush had four years earlier and carrying the county by fewer than 8,000 votes.

In Florida, Tampa is viewed as ground zero for predicting which candidate will win the state – there, the county has had a near perfect record of picking winners going back more than 50 years. NBC's Lester Holt reports.

“Duval County is a conservative part of the state, with a large military and military retiree presence, which you would have thought that would have helped McCain, but also a very conservative and religious part of the state,” University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said.

Yet Duval County also has a sizeable black population which the Obama campaign mobilized, increasing the Democratic turnout in the county by nearly 30 percent over 2004.

What happened in 2008 in Duval County and elsewhere in Florida “is that lot of conservative women were simply not engaged by McCain. That was one of the reasons that there was lack of enthusiasm for him; there weren’t a lot of campaign visits up there. McCain’s wife didn’t necessarily appeal to those women whereas Ann Romney, she draws crowds wherever she goes,” MacManus said.

On the other side of the state, Hillsborough County (Tampa and environs) proved to be a small-scale version of Florida as a whole when you compare the 2008 election with 2004.

Bush carried Hillsborough County in 2004 with 53 percent and the state with 52 percent of the vote. In 2008, Obama carried Hillsborough County with 53 percent and the state with 51 percent.

The pivotal role of Hillsborough County helps explain why the Republicans chose to have their national convention in Tampa. Underscoring again the importance of the county, Obama will travel to Tampa for a rally Thursday.

“The race and ethnic mix in Hillsborough County is very much a microcosm of Florida at large when you talk about the three groups of Hispanics, African-Americans and Anglos,” MacManus said. “And you’ve got a diverse age makeup in the county, more of an even split between younger, middle-aged, and older…. The age makeup is like Florida at large which is far less of a senior vote than a lot of people have been casting it as.”

She said three key geographies in Hillsborough County are used to do micro-targeting and turnout:

  • Conservative rural areas that are largely agricultural, like Ruskin and Wimauma, centers for tomato growing, and Plant City, a strawberry-producing area.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., analyzes the state of the presidential race in the swing state of Florida.

  • Suburban areas such New Tampa, home to many young professionals.
  • The urban core in Tampa which is dominated by minority voters and is heavily Democratic.

“The big question mark in our state right now,” MacManus said, “is turnout among the groups that really launched Obama into the White House,” namely “younger voters, the most solidly Democratic voting group in Florida and the largest margin (for Obama) and also among Latinos. That’s what we're really watching here right now. And the suburban counties, with the glimmers of some recovery, whether they’re actually going to go back and be attracted to Obama, or still be concerned about the economy. I’m leaning toward the latter.”

In Florida’s economy, there are some signs of progress. The Commerce Department reported that in the second quarter of 2012, Florida personal income grew 1.2 percent, ranking Florida fifth among the states in growth. The state’s unemployment rate fell from 10.4 percent in September of 2011 to 8.7 percent in September of 2012.

But as of September, Florida ranked number one in foreclosures, a topic which Biden brought up Saturday at his stop in St. Augustine:  “On housing, no state has been devastated more by housing than this state,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to continue to push for people to be able to modify and refinance their mortgages.”

Of course Democratic passion for Obama was at its peak on Election Day 2008 and one saw evidence of that in the traditional Democratic bastions of south Florida:

  • Miami-Dade County: In 2008, Obama won nearly half a million votes, a 22 increase in the Democratic vote compared to Kerry in 2004.
  • Palm Beach County: Obama increased Democratic turnout by 10 percent compared to 2004
  • Broward County (Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood): This was the county where Obama had his biggest plurality – more than 250,000 votes. He increased Democratic turnout by 8 percent compared to 2004.

On Election Night, if Obama under-performs in these Democratic bastions, or fails to win Hillsborough County, they would be bad omens for the president and his party.

NBC's Carrie Dann contributed reporting