Republicans and Democrats in Florida are casting early mail ballots in similar numbers, wiping away an advantage that Republicans have typically held in the swing state and posing a potential setback for Mitt Romney, the party’s presidential candidate.
Republicans have dominated early absentee voting in recent Florida elections, which Democrats traditionally offset with higher turnout at polling places open prior to Election Day. During the first week of mail voting in advance of the Nov. 6 election, Democrats are slightly behind Republicans.
“It’s not good news for Republicans,” said Brad Gomez, a political science professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, who studies voter turnout. “Republicans would prefer their advantage they’ve seen in past years.”
Small shifts in voting can have a significant impact in Florida, one of the states that strategists in both parties say will help determine whether President Barack Obama is re-elected. Three of the past five presidential elections in the state have been decided by less than three percentage points, including Republican George W. Bush’s 537-vote victory in 2000 that won him the White House. Florida was one of nine states that Bush carried in winning re-election in 2004 and that Obama, a Democrat, won in 2008.
Out of about 275,000 absentee ballots returned to election offices through Oct. 13, 44 percent are from registered Republicans while Democrats account for 40 percent, according to numbers provided by Romney’s campaign and the Florida Democratic Party. The data is exempt from state public records law. Political parties and candidates are able to obtain and release the information.
That 4-percentage-point edge is down from 17 points that Republicans had at the same point during the 2008 presidential election.
About 2.2 million Florida voters have requested absentee ballots, up from 1.6 million at this point in 2008, according to numbers provided by Romney’s campaign and the Florida Democratic Party. About 42 percent of requests this year are from Republicans, while Democrats account for 39 percent. Four years ago at this point, a 14-percentage-point gap favored Republicans.
“It’s not time for panic, but I’m certainly concerned,” said Dave Weldon, a former U.S. House member from Florida and chairman of Romney’s social conservatives committee in the state.
“Those are numbers the party needs to be concerned with and focus on ramping up,” said Kimberly Mitchell, a West Palm Beach commissioner and co-chairwoman for the Romney campaign in Palm Beach County. “When you see your opposition working to compete in an area you’ve always been strong in, you need to focus on it.”
In Florida, anyone can cast an absentee ballot by mail through the Nov. 6 election. Polls are open for early voting from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3.
Brett Doster, a Romney campaign consultant in Florida, said Democrats voting by mail likely are the ones who otherwise would have voted early in person. Republican voters still will cast more ballots in Florida before election day polls open, he said.
“I’m confident we’re going to have that advantage,” Doster said.
Republicans have had a significant advantage over Democrats in absentee voting for more than two decades, said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at University of Florida in Gainesville.
Obama overcame the deficit four years ago with massive turnout at early voting polls and won Florida by 2.7 percentage points.
Democrats have closed the gap by targeting voters who might not have otherwise cast a ballot, said Eric Jotkoff, an Obama campaign spokesman in Florida. The Democrats’ focus on absentee voting followed a state law last year that cut early voting at the polls from 15 to eight days.
Democrats have enlisted about 1,100 part-time fellows, among others, to register voters and sign them up for mail ballots, he said. The Obama campaign has 102 offices, up from 58 in Florida four years ago. About 326,600 new voters have been registered by Democrats, according to the state elections division, up from 200,000 in 2008, Jotkoff said, citing a Miami Herald story from the time.
“We see huge excitement and enthusiasm across the state and this is another sign,” Jotkoff said.
Campaign staff members are asking Democratic voters to show up at county election offices, request a mail-in ballot and fill it out on site, he said.
Republicans have signed up about 49,000 new voters in Florida, state data show, and have 47 offices for the presidential campaign, Doster said. He declined to give comparable numbers from 2008.
About 2,000 workers were hired in Florida to help Republicans sign up new voters, said Nathan Sproul, whose Glen Allen, Virginia-based Strategic Allied Consulting was hired by the party. Republicans ended their voter sign-up program last month after the company was accused of submitting fraudulent registrations.
Romney has led Obama in six of the eight state polls released since an Oct. 3 debate between the two in Denver.
In Romney’s best showing, he led 51 percent to 44 percent in a poll from Washington-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research released Oct. 11 by the Tampa Bay Times and other Florida media outlets. The poll surveyed 800 likely voters from Oct. 8 to Oct. 10 with a 3.5 percentage point margin of error.
Obama led 48 percent to 47 percent in a poll released the same day from Poughkeepsie, New York-based Marist College. That poll, sponsored by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, surveyed 988 likely voters from Oct. 7 to Oct. 9 with a 3.1 percentage point margin of error.
Romney’s team in Florida needs to build a larger margin among mail ballots, said state Senator Mike Bennett, a Sarasota Republican and one of the state’s first elected officials to endorse the former Massachusetts governor.
“In an election this close, everything is cause for concern,” Bennett said.