Op-Ed

Turnout will be the deciding factor

LAST DEBATE: Democratic candidate Charlie Crist and Republican Gov. Rick Scott shake hands before their third and final debate on Tuesday in Jacksonville.
LAST DEBATE: Democratic candidate Charlie Crist and Republican Gov. Rick Scott shake hands before their third and final debate on Tuesday in Jacksonville. AP

How will the 2014 race for Florida governor conclude? At this point it’s anyone’s guess.

The polls are close and fluctuate a point or two in either direction — either toward Republican Gov. Rick Scott or toward former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Democratic candidate. Political pundits say it’s too close to call. Momentum seems to shift but not for long. Voters are turned off by the storm of ads — mostly negative.

Conventional wisdom suggests that turnout would be low in a non-presidential year with no U.S. Senate race at the top of the ticket and very few competitive races — particularly statewide — on the ballot.

However, absentee voting has already hit a million ballots returned, with a higher percentage coming from voters registered Republican. Early voting has also started, with numbers that look low compared to absentee voting but those percentages in larger, heavily Democratic counties are actually up significantly.

Historically, absentee voting benefits Republican candidates while early in-person voting favors Democratic candidates.

So can we glean anything from these numbers? The professional number crunchers will try to extrapolate who is ahead at this point and what it means as the voting deadline of Nov. 4 arrives. Expect the Scott camp to boast about early voting.

We can assume with some certainty that the majority of Republican absentee voters will vote for Scott, the Republican incumbent, but we don’t know how many will vote for Crist, who served previously as a Republican, or Libertarian candidate Adrian Wyllie. Some disgusted voters might even “under vote” or leave that race blank.

Conversely, while assuming most Democratic absentee voters will cast their vote for Crist, we don’t know how many will support Scott, Wyllie or none of the above.

Crist needs to keep the Republican lead in returned absentee ballots to single digits. Anything less than 10 percent would be problematic for Scott unless early voting shifts in his favor. Fearing this, the Scott camp is pushing Republicans to vote early but that may be a zero-sum game, which serves only to rearrange when or how his supporters vote.

Over the past few election cycles, Gov. Scott and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature have tried to limit in-person early voting. One possible reason? It seems to heavily favor Democrats. Crist, on the other hand, as a Republican governor, expanded early-voting hours to accommodate the long lines of voters waiting to cast a vote. Republican Party leaders were not pleased.

Gov. Scott and the Legislature had to relent partially after the embarrassment of national news stories showing waiting lines wrapped around polling places during the 2012 election.

What remains to be seen is whether minority voters will turn out for in-person early voting in large numbers this year without President Obama at the top of the ticket and with Scott and the Legislature relenting, for the time being, on early-voting changes and voter purges.

The youth and minority vote is less reliable. While these are the voters Crist needs, his campaign will have to work harder to get them out. Will a focus on their issues and a ground game do it?

Despite the campaign devolving into personal character assassination, there are very distinct policy differences that should matter to key voters:

▪ Minimum wage increase to $10.10 — Scott opposes and Crist supports.

▪ Medicaid expansion — Scott opposes and Crist supports.

▪ Same-sex marriage — Scott opposes and Crist supports.

▪ Medical marijuana — Scott opposes and Crist supports.

▪ Climate change — Scott denies it is man-made while Crist wants to address it.

▪ High-stakes testing — Scott supports and Crist wants to reduce.

Scott has modified his views on in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and dropped his 2010 campaign promise to enact an Arizona-style immigration law in an effort to win more of the Hispanic vote — a key constituency in this “too close to call” race.

The question is turnout — not so much how many, but who.

Paula Dockery served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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