President Barack Obama’s ground game delivers in Florida

Ground game matters. Organization matters.

That’s the biggest take-away from President Barack Obama’s strong showing Tuesday in Florida, a state with such high unemployment and home-foreclosure rates that it was primed for a Republican win.

But, with thousands of votes still out Tuesday night, Obama appeared close to winning the nation’s largest battleground state, thanks to a mammoth grass-roots campaign. It may have killed Mitt Romney’s chance of unseating the incumbent.

Obama led Romney 50-49 percent in Florida, according to Edison Research’s exit poll that exactly mirrored the results of the actual vote as of Tuesday night.

With voters casting ballots well into the night, the final tally for Florida won’t be clear until at least Wednesday afternoon, when Miami-Dade County plans to announce its final results. More than 18,000 absentee ballots turned in Tuesday have yet to be counted.

The race could be close enough to trigger a recount — unless it is waived by Romney, who lost the overall election to the president.

Obama’s strength: liberal Southeast Florida, where early vote returns showed the president nursing a double-digit lead. Romney did well in conservative North Florida.

For the first time ever, a Democratic presidential candidate won absentee ballots — typically a Republican strength — in Miami-Dade County, with Obama eking out a 382-vote margin. That was a leading indicator of Obama’s strong grassroots campaign, which involved 200,000 unpaid volunteers who helped register 320,000 new voters this year.

Obama won big with the fastest-growing segment of the electorate: Hispanic voters, who voted for the Democrat, 60-39 percent, the exit poll showed. That’s better than Obama did in 2008.

Obama’s Hispanic-vote margin came despite a massive Hispanic-outreach effort by Romney, who struggled at times in the general election because of the hardline immigration policies he espoused during the Republican primary. Obama won big in Osceola and Orange counties, home to a burgeoning Democratic-leaning Puerto Rican population that’s starting to counterbalance Cuban-American Republicans in Southeast Florida.

Obama’s Hispanic outreach effort was so robust that he planted a field office — one of more than 100 in Florida — in the once-Republican stronghold of Little Havana.

“I have faith. I have faith in him,” independent voter Sandy Basham, 39, said Election Day when she cast her ballot. “He just needs more time.”

Obama carried independents, 50-48 percent, the exit poll showed. Independents are the key to winning Florida, a nearly deadlocked state. Obama won outsized black-voter support, but lost non-Hispanic whites by double digits.

Heading into Election Day, Democrats had cast 167,000 more early votes statewide than Republicans. But the Romney campaign denied it had much significance. They pointed out that Obama was doing worse than he did in 2008, when he won Florida by less than 3 percentage points.

But Obama 2012 wasn’t running against Obama 2008. He ran against Romney 2012. And it looks like the president won that contest.

The final results are still in doubt and the margin will be close either way. Late Tuesday, the margin was so close that the winner could be decided by Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, who had more than 41,000 votes.

Romney’s strength: The economy — the top issue for more than 60 percent of the Florida electorate, according to exit polling. Of these economy-first voters, Romney beats Obama by 6 percentage points. By 51-46 percent, voters believed that Romney would be better than Obama in handling the economy.

Voters also believed Romney was slightly more likely than Obama to share their values, be a strong leader or have a better vision for the future.

Romney also persuaded some voters that, like Obama four years ago, he is the candidate who can bring about change.

“We need a better change,” said Samantha Gentile, a 20-year-old independent who voted Tuesday at St. Gregory’s Church in Boca Raton.

“We need an economic change,” Gentile said. “We need jobs.”

Florida voters didn’t completely blame Obama for the nation’s economic woes; 51 percent said it was President George W. Bush’s fault and 42 percent said Obama.

Gentile’s remarks stood out, in part, because of the T-shirt she wore that openly advertised her support of gay marriage, which Romney opposes. Gentile said she also favors abortion rights, while Romney is opposed.

The exit polls indicated that Gentile was in the minority for those in her age group. Obama carried young voters, while he lost older voters to Romney, the exit polls showed. Voters thought Obama was better than Romney by 50-46 percent, when it came to managing Medicare. Also, the poll showed, 57 percent of Florida voters believed that taxes need to be increased on the wealthy —a position that blunted Romney’s attack against Obama as a tax raiser.

Obama fared well on an all-important question for Florida voters: Are you better off now than four years ago? Only 34 percent said no, and more than 83 percent of them were Romney voters.

Both sides slung considerable mud at each other. In all, including the U.S. Senate race, about $180 million in ads were spent in Florida. Many of them were negative. Obama spent a huge sum attacking Romney in the summer to drag down the Republican’s poll numbers. Romney surged briefly after an October debate that Obama lost.

It could take days for the final results of the election to be clear. In Miami-Dade, voters remained in line in some precincts until well past midnight.

The close race could easily trigger a recount under Florida law, which automatically kicks in when any race is decided by a margin of one-half of one percent or less.

If 9 million people vote in Florida — a plausible figure, given reports of heavy turnout around the state — that means there could be a recount if the presidential vote is decided by 45,000 votes or less.

In a recount, all ballots are submitted again into the tabulating machines to recount the votes. If the recount yields a margin of one-quarter of one percent or less, the local canvassing boards must then perform a manual recount to examine so-called “undervotes” and “overvotes” — ballots that recorded no vote for president, or multiple votes for president.

Any recount must be completed within nine days from the day it is ordered by the Secretary of State. However, state law also says any recounts must be completed within 12 days of Election Day.

But, just as in the 2000 recount, there are tensions between the state and federal law: Elections officials still must collect absentee ballots cast overseas for some 10 days after Election Day. So overseas ballots could trickle in through Nov. 16, with a recount deadline of Nov. 18.

In 2008, more than 97,000 absentee ballots were cast by overseas Florida voters.

For those who have blotted it from their memories: The 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore was decided by just 537 votes in Florida.

Miami Herald staff writers Amy Sherman and Kathleen McGrory contributed to this story.