Souls to Polls: A boom or bust for candidates

At left, Gov. Rick Scott campaigns in Hialeah, while Charlie Crist, right, holds a rally at Florida International University on Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014.
At left, Gov. Rick Scott campaigns in Hialeah, while Charlie Crist, right, holds a rally at Florida International University on Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014. MIAMI HERALD/EL NUEVO HERALD STAFF

Sunday was for spiritual as well as political salvation, a day in Florida politics for “Souls to the Polls.”

The last day for in-person early voting, Sunday is a time when black voters have flexed their political muscle and cast ballots in droves after church. The lift was heavy Sunday: help the Democratic Party — and especially Charlie Crist — eat into Republicans’ 126,000 lead in casting pre-Election Day ballots.

In a nod to black voters’ importance, Crist campaigned with Vice President Joe Biden at Mount Hermon AME Church in Fort Lauderdale. Pastors throughout Tampa Bay urged the faithful to go vote. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton respectively stumped in Jacksonville and Miami, which saw nearly 16,500 voters, a 53 percent increase from Saturday.

Republicans, unlike in past years, were determined not to let Democrats run up the score on Sunday. Gov. Rick Scott visited First Baptist Church Piney Grove in Lauderdale Lakes. Scott then rallied with Jeb Bush in Miami-Dade’s heavily Hispanic Republican city of Hialeah.

“Charlie Crist has gotta go,” Bush said to wild applause, joking a moment later that “my mother didn’t want me to say that.” Bush later told reporters that Scott has “kept his word. His opponent is someone who will say anything, do anything to get elected.”

Crist, at least on Sunday, was going everywhere in South Florida — from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and then back to a crowded early voting site in North Miami where people waited for more than an hour after the 4 p.m. closing time to cast ballots. This is his sixth statewide campaign, his first bid for a second term as governor under a new political party banner.

Earlier in the day, the Crist campaign played up Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes’ inquiry of the state concerning whether she could keep early voting polls open later than 4 p.m. The state said she couldn’t.

Crist and Biden pointed to the contrast with Scott, who refused to extend early voting hours in 2012, when lines were long. Crist as governor in 2008 extended early voting hours.

“You can early vote up until 4 o’clock,” Crist said at a Fort Lauderdale rally with Biden. “I heard some tried to make it a little longer but you know how things go sometimes in Florida. ... I’m on your side and Rick’s not.”

Biden said he was delivering a simple message from President Barack Obama: “He has had your back, you’ve got to have his back. ... Give him some governors he can work with.”

Scott’s message at First Baptist focused less on politics and more on his faith as a Christian. Later, in Hialeah, the multimillionaire emphasized his humble roots.

“This is the state that the dream is alive, the dream that you can come from anywhere and do anything you want,” Scott said.

The success of Crist’s and Scott’s early voting push Sunday won’t become clear until Monday, when county elections’ supervisors post data on early ballots cast by party. The actual votes for candidates, however, won’t be tallied until Election Day.

Tight race

The race is as tight as ever, with dueling polls showing each major candidate leading by amounts that are inside the error margin of each survey.

University of Florida political science professor Daniel A. Smith said the importance of Souls to the Polls is clear in Florida. Using Florida elections data, Smith estimated that African-Americans were about 13 percent of the voter rolls in 2010 but made up 23 percent of the in-person early voters on the Sunday before Election Day that year.

Still, the African-American vote was proportionately lower in 2010, when Scott won, than in 2012, when Obama carried Florida. Black voters, 28 percent of the Democrats’ voter rolls, are crucial to Crist’s chances.

“The final Sunday push on the last day of early voting in a handful of counties could well be the difference in the too-close-to-call governor’s race in 2014,” Smith said.

Crist’s campaign said African-American voting was already up in 2014 compared to 2010. But Scott’s campaign points out that Republicans aren’t just ahead in raw early votes, it says Crist might be cannibalizing his Election Day voters by simply moving them to early vote.

Relative to the ballots cast by Republicans, Democrats know they’ll head into Election Day down. They’re comforting themselves with polling data that shows independents, who have cast more than 17 percent of early and absentee ballots, are leaning toward Crist. Also, Democrats have more than 455,000 registered voters than Republicans.

Crist backyard

But in Crist’s home county of Pinellas, the call to vote early en masse fell on deaf ears.

At Bethel Community Baptist Church, one of St. Petersburg’s most prominent African-American churches, the Rev. Manuel L. Sykes asked members of the congregation to raise their hands if they had already voted. Everyone else, he said, should report to the Greater Mount Zion AME Church at 1045 16th Street South at 3 p.m. for the final Souls to the Polls push. But at the appointed time, the event looked like a bust. Only a handful of people showed up after church.

The lack of crowds is a potentially troubling sign for Crist because it took place in his own backyard of Pinellas County. Despite having a campaign stocked with political professionals who worked for Obama’s reelection in Florida, Crist’s campaign hasn’t been able to drive pre-Election Day turnout at the same rate.

One reason early voting might be light in Pinellas, however, is that mail-in voting by absentee ballot is stressed by its election supervisor, Deborah Clark.

Pinellas voters have cast more absentee ballots than voters in any other county: 185,000, 42 percent by Republicans, 38 percent by Democrats as of Saturday night. Its early voting, though, is the 25th lowest in the state at 16,000 as of Saturday night.

Republicans have long dominated mail-in ballot voting and lead Democrats 45-37 percent of the 1.7 million absentee ballots cast statewide. After Pinellas Republicans, Miami-Dade Republicans have cast the second-highest amount of absentee ballots compared to political parties in other counties, 172,000.

Republicans won early voting as well in 2010, but they lost it badly in 2012 when, after a single weekend, enough Democrats showed at the polls to lead the GOP in total pre-Election Day ballots cast.

That same Democratic intensity hasn’t been seen during this midterm election.

Still, Democrats narrowly lead Republicans in early votes cast in person, 42-41 percent. All told, more than 1.2 million in-person early votes have been cast as of Saturday night, bringing the total pre-Election Day ballots to about 3 million, which could be half of this election’s total votes.

Broward County Democrats have cast more early in-person votes than other party members in other counties, about 68,000 as of Saturday night. Miami-Dade Democrats cast about 53,000, followed by Palm Beach (40,000), Hillsborough (34,000) and Duval (30,000).

Jacksonville blacks

Those numbers should grow after Sunday — especially in Jacksonville’s Duval, one of 12 counties that offered early voting Sunday. Democrats emphasized early voting. Jesse Jackson paid a visit.

On the city’s north side, the Rev. Jeffrey Rumlin ended a two-hour service at Dayspring Baptist Church by reminding his African-American congregation of about 300 people that others died so that blacks could gain the right to vote.

“If voting was not important, then why are some people trying to stop us from voting?” Rumlin asked as parishioners chimed in with “Amen” and “that’s right.” The pastor’s father, Isaiah Rumlin, president of the NAACP’s Jacksonville branch, made a similar pitch.

Worshippers were given fans that showed side-by-side pictures of Crist and Obama and the phrase “partners in progress,” and a list of the county’s 18 early voting sites. They were also offered tickets to a free fish fry in a parking lot next door to the nearest early voting site at a branch library.

“It’s not because we’re trying to buy a vote. It’s trying to encourage voting,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, who passed out the fish fry tickets and addressed the congregation as the service ended. “I can’t tell you who to vote for, but I’d certainly rather be Scott-free.”

The pace of voting was steady on a clear and sunny 60-degree afternoon where the only competition for voters’ attention was a Jaguars football game.

Christie Thomas, 38, an administrative assistant at a hospital, joined the “Souls to the Polls” effort, and voted for Crist at the Highlands library branch.

“He’s for the middle class,” Thomas said, adding of Scott: “He’s for the upper class. He doesn’t look out for the little people.”

Thomas is an example of the so-called “sporadic voter” Democrats have been targeting to improve turnout over the 2010 election. A lifelong Democrat, Thomas said she did not vote in the 2010 race for governor and voted early because she wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice.

“I was working late,” she said. “By the time I got to the polls, they were closed.”

Another factor likely to boost black turnout in Jacksonville is the presence on the ballot of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, who has a serious opponent, Republican Glo Smith, but is heavily favored to win a 12th consecutive term in Congress. Brown was scheduled to visit a half-dozen black churches on Sunday to help ramp out the get-out-the-vote effort.

Duval Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland estimated that turnout so far is three to five percentage points higher than it was in 2010.

Miami-Dade turnout

Miami-Dade’s early voting on Sunday saw some of the heaviest turnout, 170 percent more than the previous Sunday.

Voting was heaviest at the North Miami Public Library, where 1,121 cast in-person ballots. After polls closed at 4 p.m., dozens waited in line for an hour to make sure they could vote. Crist showed after 4:30 and was promptly mobbed by a crowd, chanting his name with lilting Creole accents.

“Stay in line,” Crist said into a megaphone someone handed him. “Don’t let them dissuade you from voting.”

One voter said she waited about an hour to vote, but it was worth it.

“I am so happy he came,” said North Miami resident Victoria Rolle, 44.

Not everyone was thrilled with the wait times. Earlier in the day in Liberty City at the Model City library, voter Pierrela Jean Baptiste had to put on flipflops after standing in line for 20 minutes with the promise of 20 more minutes of waiting in front of her.

“No way I can stand any longer in these,” she said, pointing to five-inch heels she had been wearing.

Nearby, 66-year-old Ted Lyons surveyed the scene from a bench. He’s among the rarist of voters: a black Republican. African-Americans account for less than 1.4 percent of the Florida GOP.

Lyons, like perhaps thousands of Florida voters, said he liked neither Crist nor Scott.

“Scott and Crist haven’t done anything for our community,” Lyons said.

Asked whom he voted for, Lyons smiled: “I voted for myself, wrote my name in.”

Miami Herald reporters Carli Teproff contributed to this article along with Tampa Bay Times staff writers Craig Pittman and Boyzell Hosey.

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