More than 1.1 million Floridians have already voted by absentee ballot in the past month, which amounts to regular-season play in the contact sport of Florida politics.
The GOP is the top seed, edging Democrats by 5 percentage points in casting absentee ballots, which are typically mailed in.
But the playoffs started Saturday morning with in-person early voting. And that’s when Democrats — already narrowing the absentee-ballot gap with Republicans — typically excel.
“We are going to keep Florida blue,” boasted Ashley Walker, President Barack Obama’s Florida director, during a Friday conference call in which the campaign touted facts and figures showing its strong organization.
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However, the Obama campaign’s successful push to bank absentee ballots could cost it some bragging rights when it comes to showing big gains during the in-person early voting period that runs from Saturday to Nov. 3.
As of 9 a.m., there were no reported problems at the polls, but long lines had already begun forming at several stations.
This year, about 38 percent of the absentee ballots cast by Democrats have come from those who voted early or voted on Election Day in 2008, according to an analysis of voting records by The Miami Herald and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
That means Democrats could post relatively fewer early-voting increases over Republicans compared to 2008, when Democrats cast 500,000 more in-person early votes while the GOP cast about 250,000 more absentee ballots.
In all, about nine million Floridians are expected to vote in this year’s presidential race, with about 40 percent casting ballots before Election Day, Nov. 6.
Republicans say Democrats have “cannibalized” their early voters this time.
But the Obama campaign dismisses that as “spin” and says it’s focused on getting its core voters out while trying to entice occasional or sporadic voters — who tend to back Obama — to show up at the polls.
And it’s not as if Republicans haven’t eaten into some of their own regular voters, either. About 29 percent of the absentee ballots cast by Republicans this year came from those who voted early or on Election Day in 2008, The Miami Herald and FCIR analysis shows.
With such a tight race in Florida, the next eight days of in-person early voting — the so-called “ground game” of turning out voters — will start to exceed the importance of the TV-advertising air war, which has so far resulted in $174 million being spent in Florida alone.
Bottom line: banked votes are worth more than ad time. And the votes of independents — who have cast 16 percent of the absentee ballots so far — is almost as important to each party as turning out its base voters.
The absentee ballots cast so far also give a glimpse of what’s to come: a hard-fought, close race in the Interstate 4 corridor from Tampa Bay through Orange County and a huge volume of votes pouring in from Broward and Miami-Dade counties in South Florida.
Republicans note the political landscape has changed significantly in the past four years. The unemployment and home-foreclosure rate is worse in Florida than in the nation at large, and Republicans are far more excited about Mitt Romney now than they were with John McCain in 2008.
Also, Obama spends relatively more time talking about abortion while Romney is sticking more closely to a message about creating jobs, the top issue for Florida voters.
“Team Obama has an intensity problem, they are losing ground, and they have a message problem in Florida,” said Brett Doster, a top Romney Florida advisor.
“Now Obama’s team is staking all of their hopes on their grass-roots team,” he said. “But anyone suggesting that Obama’s grass-roots teams are better than Romney’s are completely out of touch with reality.”
Doster points out that Republicans are voting their absentee ballots faster than Democrats, which he says indicates more Republican enthusiasm.
In addition to the 1.1 million Floridians who have already voted, another 1.5 million have requested their absentee ballots but have not yet mailed them in or voted them.
The Romney campaign boasts of 150 full-time staffers, 900,000 calls and mailers to voters last week and five times more phone calls and 47 times more door knocks than this time in 2008.
The Obama counters with the fact that it has 106 field offices throughout Florida while Romney has just 47. The Obama campaign says it held 2,827 vote-canvasses last weekend and operated 1,700 phone banks.
Also, Obama’s campaign has a volunteer army that, it says, exceeds 200,000. It has also helped sign up more than 322,000 new voters.
But the Democrats also lost some of their voter registration edge over Republicans since 2008. The GOP trailed by nearly six percentage points four years ago, but is now behind by just over 4 percent.
The Democrats’ registered-voter lead over Republicans is about 500,000, down from 658,000 in 2008 when Obama carried must-win Florida by fewer than three percentage points, or about 236,000 votes.
Another major voter-registration change has happened in the last four years: The proportion of Florida’s minority voters is increasing.
The voter rolls now have about 250,000 more African-American, Caribbean descendants, and Hispanics — many of whom tend to be Obama-leaning Puerto Rican voters as opposed to Romney-leaning Cuban Americans.
Only 9 percent of the new Hispanic voters registered with the GOP; 41 percent with the Democrats and 51 percent as independents, the Obama campaign notes.
Black voters, a base of the Democratic Party, prefer in-person early voting to absentee-ballot voting by mail. And they plan to show up in force Saturday and Sunday as part of a statewide effort, linked to black churches, called “Souls to the Polls,” that would stretch from Miami to Tampa to Tallahassee.
Voter drives like that, independent of the Obama organization, could help decide the election in battleground Florida — and therefore the nation.
However, the Republican-led Legislature shortened the number of early voting days this year (to eight from 14) and eliminated it on the Sunday before Election Day, when black voters have flocked to the polls.
Only 8 percent of the absentee ballots cast so far have been from African-Americans, and just 9 percent from Hispanics. About 65 percent of those Hispanics are from Southeast Florida – a majority of whom are Cuban Republicans – followed by more liberal leaning Hispanics in Central Florida (15 %) and Tampa Bay (12%). A whopping 79 percent of the absentee-ballot voters are white non-Hispanic.
Public opinion surveys show that Obama is winning the Hispanic vote, but he’s badly losing the non-Hispanic white vote, which is the largest share of the Florida electorate. The last Miami Herald poll earlier this month showed Romney handily winning independents.
“Romney’s message of economic recovery is winning over undecideds in every media market in the state,” Doster, the Romney advisor said. “We will win Florida.”
But Obama’s national field director, Jeremy Bird, said the Romney campaign and the public pollsters are missing the fact that the Democrats are going after and turning out sporadic voters.
“We’re focused like a laser beam,” Bird said. “If you look at the registration advantages that Democrats have in Florida — if those voters turn out — Barack Obama will be president for a second term.”
Trevor Aaronson is co-director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.