In politics, polls are important but absentee votes are essential

10/14/2012 6:35 PM

10/14/2012 7:19 PM

MiamiHerald.com/columnists

As the public focuses on political polls, the campaigns in the nation’s biggest battleground state are concentrating on a more-important set of figures: Absentee-ballot votes.

At least 284,000 people have already cast absentee ballots in Florida over the past week.

The number grows hourly. About 2 million voters have requested the ballots, which are typically mailed.

It’s a sign that we don’t have a single Election Day in Florida.

We have Election Days.

Polls tell us Mitt Romney’s winning in Florida right now. Absentee-vote data show us that’s probably true.

But the numbers also show President Barack Obama’s campaign is closer than ever to matching Republicans in requesting and voting absentee ballots.

“We very much like what we’re seeing in terms of absentee requests,” said David Plouffe, a senior Obama advisor.

Republicans are happy, too.

So it’s good-news, bad-news for both campaigns.

Republicans are winning the absentee-vote race in North Florida, the Naples area and in Miami-Dade County, where nearly 20,000 ballots have already been cast. Democrats are pulling ahead in Central Florida, Tampa Bay’s two biggest counties and in Broward County.

The Republicans lead Democrats when it comes to absentee votes cast, about 126,000 to 114,000. In percentage terms, Republicans lead Democrats 44-40 percent.

And that’s despite the fact that Republicans trail Democrats by 4 percentage points when it comes to active voter registrations: 36-40 percent.

Meantime, a Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald/Tampa Bay Times poll last week showed Romney with a 7 percentage-point lead over Obama. A Florida International University poll, released Monday, shows Romney within striking distance of Obama among likely Hispanic voters, a crucial voting bloc.

Despite all the positive trends for them, Republicans are a little nervous. They’ve always out-organized and outvoted Democrats by absentee ballots — usually by big margins.

But no more.

Relative to this time in the 2008 election, Democrats trailed Republicans by 16 percentage points in voted absentee ballots. That lead has been cut to 4 percentage points this year.

“The Democrats are being smart,” said Brett Doster, a top Florida adviser to Romney. “There has been a concerted effort by the Democrats to pour it on. They know they need to keep up.”

Doster said about half the electorate will probably cast ballots before Election Day on Nov. 6.

Though the absentee-vote numbers are small relative to the state’s total 12 million voters right now, the data give an idea of how close and hard-fought the race is in a state where, if Romney loses, Obama stays president.

The Obama campaign has a trump card: in-person early voting, which begins Saturday, Oct. 27.

In 2008, Democrats outvoted Republicans during in-person early voting, flocking to the polls to such a degree that then-Gov. Charlie Crist issued an executive order keeping the early voting polls open an extra 4 hours daily. Obama won Florida and the White House.

Thanks to Crist, early voting lasted for a total of 120 hours in 2008. Heading into this election, the Republican-led Legislature shortened the total maximum days of early voting from 14 to 8 and capped the hours to a maximum of 96.

Republicans also eliminated early in-person voting on the Sunday before Election Day, when African-Americans — 27 percent of the Democratic Party — flocked to the polls.

To get around the early voting restrictions, the Obama campaign has sought to turn the absentee-ballot period into a modified form of early voting.

As part of Obama’s Vote Now! initiative, the campaign is encouraging voters to fill out absentee ballots and, rather than stick them in the mail, head down to county election supervisors’ offices and cast them in person.

Counties typically have one or two election supervisor offices, however. Early voting precincts in area neighborhoods don’t open until Oct. 27.

Although it’s impossible to tell how a partisan voted, it’s safe to assume that the overwhelming number of Democrats who early vote are voting for the Democrat (except, perhaps, among Dixiecrat conservatives in North Florida). Republicans are going to vote for the Republican, by and large.

But what about independent and no-party-affiliation voters? They’re a mystery. And without them, a major campaign can’t win Florida. They’re a quarter of the electorate.

Right now, independents have cast about 44,000 early ballots and requested about 357,000.

If the polls are right, Romney is probably leading among independents because most of the ballots started coming in just as he whipped Obama in their first debate.

But Plouffe, the Obama advisor, suggested that polls of likely voters are missing what the Obama campaign — with its horde of more than 200,000 volunteers — is doing: Turning out new and infrequent voters.

In short, Obama’s campaign is trying to turn unlikely voters into likely voters. It’s happening with absentee votes already. Democrats are leading Republicans in absentee ballot requests among infrequent voters.

But Republicans lead Democrats when it comes to the most-reliable voters. And they’re virtually tied when it comes to new voters who requested absentee ballots.

“We think we can increase our margins in Miami-Dade,” Plouffe said. “There’s a growing Puerto Rican population in the central part of the state.”

Democrats are winning the early vote in Orange County by about 1,500 absentee votes cast — its biggest margin in any county. Of the Democratic absentee-vote total in Orange County, about 18 percent is Hispanic in a county where they comprise 24 percent of the registered Democrats. In all, more than 20,000 absentee ballots have been cast in Orange.

Republicans are handily winning the state’s most-Hispanic county, Miami-Dade, by more than 1,500 absentee ballots cast. About 78 percent of the Republican ballots here have been cast by Hispanics. They account for 72 percent of the county’s registered Republicans.

Collier County, home to financial-industry titans and conservative Midwestern snowbirds, is the Romney campaign’s stronghold. It leads Obama’s campaign by 2,300 votes in the Naples area.

Democrats are ahead in liberal Broward and Palm Beach counties. And they’re nursing the narrowest of leads in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, which are part of the crucial I-4 corridor that’s at the geographical and ideological crossroads of the state.

Romney’s advisor, Doster, said all of the data indicates that Republicans are still more likely to vote absentee and that they’re doing a better job of casting a ballot after requesting it — a sign of positive intensity.

“We are building on a tried and true program,” Doster said. “With three weeks to go, we feel we have a strong statistical advantage.”

But the Democrats feel the same way.

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