Florida election turnout war off to early start

Florida Democrats celebrate this weekend at Disney World; Republicans might wind up knocking on your door.

The contrast between the two parties — one reveling in repeat election wins and favorable polls at its state conference, the other canvassing neighborhoods door-to-door statewide — illustrates Florida’s state of political play over the next election year.

“Florida Democrats are in Orlando this weekend to talk to themselves,” said Tim Saler, a top Republican Party of Florida political strategist.

“While their wheels are spinning at their convention,” he said, “we will have hundreds of precinct captains knocking on doors and talking to thousands of real voters about the issues that matter to them.”

For months, even as Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s poll numbers remained poor, RPOF says it has been identifying and then personally contacting thousands of voters — especially the estimated 450,000 Republicans who vote in presidential elections but didn’t in 2010.

More than half live in conservative “fortress precincts” targeted by Republicans.

RPOF also recently announced three new Hispanic-outreach coordinators. Democrats had already hired three of their own.

Democrats have a bigger edge with Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. And they’re trying to keep it that way.

Since May, the Florida Democratic Party says it has hosted about six monthly voter-registration efforts outside naturalization ceremonies in Central and South Florida, where they also have held an average of three Hispanic community events a month.

Democrats have tailored some events toward Venezuelans, Colombians, Cubans, Nicaraguans and Puerto Ricans in different areas of the state.

“We haven’t stopped our efforts since 2012,” said the Florida Democratic Party’s political director, Christian Ulvert, estimating the party has out-registered Republicans with Hispanics by a ratio of three to one.

“We haven’t seen where the Republicans have been doing it in a coordinated way or effective way,” he said.

Democrats have eagerly informed Hispanics of Scott’s hardline immigration stances. They also note that, between the 2010 and 2012 elections, more Hispanics registered as independents — 538,708 — than as Republicans, 476,488.

About 645,000 Hispanics were registered as Democrats in the last election.

Just as the buzz of President Barack Obama’s November 2012 win was wearing off, Democrats scored a second victory this month when Democrat Amanda Murphy won a Pasco County state House seat despite being outspent by the Republicans.

The tarnished GOP brand during the partial government shutdown and Scott’s low standing with voters, consultants say, played roles in Murphy’s victory two weeks before this weekend’s Florida Democratic Party State Conference at a Disney resort.

But if previous elections are any indication, Democrats have an uphill climb next year. Republicans typically over-perform in midterm elections, allowing the GOP to control the governor’s office, Cabinet and a majority of the Legislature.

Polls indicate the best Democratic candidate for governor was once a Republican — Gov. Charlie Crist — who will attend the conference.

Former state Sen. Nan Rich, the only major announced Democratic candidate, is expected to speak twice at the conference. Crist won’t because he hasn’t announced yet.

Though Crist performs best in polls against Scott, the governor plans to spend as much as $100 million to change those numbers. Republicans are zeroing in on Crist’s numerous flip-flops and the bad economy he left behind in 2009.

Polls a year out from an election aren’t clear predictors of a winner, either.

A Quinnipiac Florida survey released a year before the presidential election — just before a major RPOF presidential forum — showed Obama trailing Republican Mitt Romney by 7 percentage points.

Obama had more negative job approval numbers than Scott a year out from the election — yet the president won the state by one point, or 74,309 votes.

Republicans point out that, though Obama’s campaign received a lion’s share of the attention for turning out voters, more Republicans proportionately turned out in the election.

Only 70 percent of registered Democrats turned out to cast ballots in 2012, but 76 percent of registered Republicans did so in Florida.

But of the total ballots cast, Democrats edged Republicans by 1.5 percentage points because active registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 535,987, a lead cut to 503,977 by the end of last month.

The major numerical advantage of Democrats, however, has traditionally disappeared in lower turnout gubernatorial-race years, when Republican enthusiasm to cast ballots remains stronger.

Scott’s pollster, Tony Fabrizio, told the Miami-Dade Republican women’s club recently that, as good as the Romney turnout operation was, “the field plan for 2014 is much more expansive.”

But Fabrizio and the RPOF in an April report acknowledged Republicans have work to do, in light of the fact that only 45 percent of registered Republicans voted in 2010 (the Democratic drop-off was even greater).

To get more Republicans to the polls, RPOF identified 1,219 large Republican-majority “fortress precincts” that account for 41 percent of all GOP voters statewide and contain about 252,000 off-year no-shows.

Boosting turnout by a quarter here would give Scott an extra 63,013 votes — 2.3 percent more than his margin over Democrat Alex Sink in 2010, which was a high watermark election year for conservatives.

Scott, according to exit polls, beat Sink among Hispanic voters by two percentage points. Two years later, Florida Hispanic voters backed Obama by 21 percentage points over Republican Mitt Romney. The margin was even bigger nationwide.

The demographics underpinning the last election’s results have worried RPOF and Fabrizio.

Women, who outvote men in Florida by nine to 10 percentage points, are leaving the Republican Party in noticeable numbers.

Fabrizio, talking to the Miami-Dade club, also mentioned the need for minority outreach.

“Otherwise we’re going to be the party of whites in an electorate, in a shrinking electoral pool, that we can’t win,” Fabrizio said. “Yeah, so we get 65 percent of the white vote. But if they’re only 65 percent of the vote, guess what? You can’t win.”

Fabrizio, though, said the demographic troubles are more problematic in future elections after the governor’s race. And he’s confident in Scott’s plan.

Democrats, however, say the Republican Party is undergoing an internal nationwide revolt from the tea party, and it’s hurting the GOP’s chances in the polls and from within.

“They have a split party,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, the only statewide elected Democratic officeholder. “You have the tail wagging the dog, which is the tea party extremists.”

But Nelson said that doesn’t mean Democrats should underestimate RPOF.

“I’d take anybody seriously,” Nelson said.