Election Day could already be half over in Florida before polling stations open at 7 a.m.
More than 4.5 million people have voted early, which accounts for 38 percent of the state’s 12 million registered voters and half of the ones likely to cast a ballot.
Democrats have a lead in total ballots cast over Republicans — 167,000 — but polls indicate Republican Mitt Romney is in a better position than President Barack Obama.
Obama is worse off than he was four years ago. Depending on how the data are sliced, his pre-Election Day lead could be half of what it was in 2008.
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Still, Democrats are up in early ballots.
“It’s half-over, but it’s tied,” said Michael McDonald, a George Mason University political science professor and early voting expert. “There’s still another half to play.”
This is the tough half. If Obama wins Florida, he wins re-election.
The campaigns will be phoning voters who don’t show up, providing rides and keeping electronic tabs on bellwether precincts. It’s a massive numbers game involving tens of thousands of grassroots volunteers and data-mining techies monitoring the campaigns’ progress — or lack thereof — in real time from headquarters in Chicago (Obama) and Boston (Romney).
McDonald said this Florida election had a surprise: Higher proportions of Republicans cast in-person early votes compared to 2008, and even higher percentages of Democrats cast absentee ballots, which are typically mailed.
About 2.1 million absentee ballots were cast statewide — in addition to 2.4 million in-person early votes. The numbers show that, when it comes to voting, Florida has racial divisions that play to each campaign’s strengths, according to an analysis of preliminary voter data conducted by The Miami Herald and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting:
African-American voters: Accounting for less than 14 percent of the electorate, they prefer to vote in person rather than by mail.
Black voters have cast more than a quarter of the state’s early votes, but only about 9 percent of absentee ballots. About 90 percent of the African-American ballots are from Democrats.
Hispanic voters: More than 14 percent of the electorate, Hispanic voters appear to still prefer to vote on Election Day.
Hispanics cast about 12 percent of in-person early votes, with Democrats far outnumbering Republicans. The Democrats’ strength: Central Florida, home to liberal-leaning Puerto Ricans, where Democrats outvoted the GOP nearly 2:1.
But it’s a different story when it comes to absentee ballots, thanks to strong Cuban-American support in Southeast Florida, where Hispanic GOP absentee ballots were more than double those cast by Hispanic Democrats. Still, Hispanic Democrats cling to a narrow 37-41 percent lead over Republicans in the overall early vote. And Democrats have more Hispanics to turn out relative to the number of Republican Hispanics who haven’t yet voted.
Non-Hispanic white voters: About 67 percent of the electorate, white voters turn out in higher proportions than minorities during Florida elections. They cast 77 percent of absentee ballots, but only 61 percent of in-person early votes.
Obama needs an outsized minority turnout to counterbalance the disproportionate white vote that Romney is winning in polls. Obama also needs to rely on young and first-time voters. So the Obama campaign bolstered Democratic ranks by more than 320,000, many of them minorities, thanks to a mammoth voter-registration drive.
The Herald analysis shows that about 300,000 voters who signed up since the spring cast early ballots. Democrats say they’re beating Republicans when it comes to the number of first-time voters and voters who cast a ballot just once in the past three elections. But Republicans hold an edge when it comes to long-time reliable voters who have cast ballots — their base.
A big unknown: independent voters, who lean in Romney’s favor, according to most Florida polls. An unscientific Miami Herald email survey of more than 2,000 non-partisan voters who cast absentee ballots, however, found Obama winning the independent vote.
Because Florida is so close, independents essentially cast the tie-breaker. About 806,000 independents have already voted — about 18 percent of early ballots.
Overall, Democrats are ahead of Republicans 43-39 percent in early ballots cast. But the margin was much larger in 2008, when Democrats had a cumulative lead of as much as 363,000 ballots in 2008, or about 8 percentage points, according to data maintained by George Mason University. Using a different set of figures, Democrats say their lead was about 269,000. Republicans say it was about 315,000.
“President Obama built his campaign around the word ‘forward,’ but his ground game went in reverse. Early voting and absentee ballot voting is down in key Democratic strongholds like Miami-Dade County. Statewide, early and absentee voting among Democrats is down 50 percent from 2008,” said Alberto Martinez, a Romney campaign advisor from Florida, noting the relatively solid position Romney has in the polls.
Although registered Florida Democrats outnumber Republicans by 4.5 percentage points, the GOP frequently turns out a higher proportion of its voters, Martinez notes. “Our voters are ready to go to the polls even if it rains fire,” he said.
But Ashley Walker, the Obama campaign’s Florida chief, said Republicans are just offering “spin” because they don’t have the numbers. She acknowledges Obama has had a tougher campaign in 2008, but he’s ahead.
“I’d rather be on the plus-side rather than being in the position Romney’s campaign is in,” Walker said. “We’re basically banking votes. We just have to organize tomorrow and make sure folks turn out and finish off the half.”
Weighing on Obama: the bad economy. Also, the GOP-led Legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Scott cut early voting days to eight from 14. The early voting hours in South Florida were 20 percent lower this year compared to 2008.
In comparison to 2008, in-person early voting in Miami-Dade is down 27 percent. But Democrats increased their margins with absentee ballots to make up some of the difference.
Polls indicate that Obama needs an outsized turnout in urban Southeast Florida to shield him from heavy losses in rural North Florida.
Statewide, early-vote ballots are down about 200,000 compared to 2008, while absentee votes are up about 300,000.
To meet some of the demand of early voters, South Florida elections supervisors allowed voters to pick up absentee ballots and vote them in-person at each election office headquarters on Sunday — a day specifically barred from offering early voting under the election law Scott signed in 2011.
On Monday, Skye Barth stood in a line of about 250 people shortly before noon at Miami-Dade’s election headquarters in Doral. A student, she borrowed a car Monday morning, on her day off, to make it because she didn’t think she would make it to her precinct Tuesday.
“Today’s the last chance,” said Barth, 30. “You have do what you have to do.”
Starting at 7 a.m., the campaign that has more voters like Barth will likely walk away the winner.
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.