MIAMI — Republicans typically hold a slight edge in absentee ballot returns in Florida elections. But this year, there’s been a stunning development.
For the first time ever at this stage of a general election, Democrats here are outvoting Republicans — and by a mammoth 384,000-vote margin through Tuesday.
The unprecedented early voting numbers have electrified Democrats in President Donald Trump’s must-win swing state, but Florida campaign veterans warn that it’s too early for the party to celebrate.
“There’s a big wave of Republicans coming. And frankly, that’s a data point that a lot of people tweeting about this fail to realize,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic operative in Florida who heads the pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country.
“The numbers are pretty staggering for us and the return rates and the polling look good,” Schale said. “But there’s just a lot we don’t know.”
For starters, Republicans say their data show that they have 400,000 more high-propensity voters who have yet to cast ballots when compared to Democrats. Republicans have indicated to pollsters and the Trump campaign that they would rather vote in person.
“Voting in Florida is a marathon. And what you’re seeing is a bit of a sprint from the Democrats,” Trump’s Florida campaign director, Susie Wiles, said. “But we have far more high-propensity voters on our side. That should be noted in all the hype about the Democrats’ lead. We’re not finished. We’re turning our sights to early in-person voting and to Election Day.”
The massive disparity, coupled with polling showing Biden marginally leading Trump here, have Democrats in a virtual swoon. Activists and consultants say it’s a sign that their side is more enthusiastic about turning out.
While Florida Republicans used to dominate the absentee ballot game, Trump’s demonization of voting by mail has played a role in the GOP’s relatively weak performance to date.
As Democrats started to lead in absentee ballot requests, Trump’s campaign responded by registering more voters, and it’s boasting of a bigger and deeper field program that can turn out more voters in person than Biden’s campaign could hope to do.
Though the state tracks the returns of voters by party, officials do not open the ballots and tabulate the actual votes, making the returns a rough estimate of turnout but not a precise picture of which candidate is winning the election. In the past, however, both parties used early absentee ballot returns as a first step in gauging voter intensity for their side.
Both sides are bracing for an election that could have as many as 9.8 million total votes.
As of Tuesday, Democrats accounted for almost 51 percent of the nearly 1.8 million ballots cast so far. Republicans had cast about 520,000 ballots, or about 29 percent of the total.
The remaining 20 percent of the ballots mailed in so far have been cast by independent voters who have no party affiliation or belong to minor third parties.
The preference of these independent voters is harder to gauge, but polls suggest Biden is winning them. In addition, according to an internal analysis by Florida’s Democratic Party, its models show that 31 percent of those independent voters who have already cast ballots look like Democratic voters because their age and race more closely correlate with Biden voters; only 11 percent look like Trump voters.
Republicans contend that Democrats are largely “cannibalizing” their Election Day vote by getting their same supporters to just vote earlier. But both sides agree that Democrats are turning out tens of thousands of more low-propensity voters, though they don’t agree on the significance. Democrats say they have an edge of 40,000 more low-propensity voters because more of their voters are enthused about turning out. Republicans counter that Democrats simply have more of those types of voters anyway, so they’ll always have an advantage.
Democrats also point out they’re beating Republicans when it comes to turning out newly registered voters, and that all of it is happening as Florida seniors, who typically back Republicans, appear more winnable for Biden this year when compared to how they voted in 2016.
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton won pre-Election Day voters by a margin of slightly less 247,000 voters over Trump. But Republicans turned out in such huge numbers on Election Day that he won overall by almost 113,000 votes.
Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor who tracks early voting nationwide, echoes data analysts on both sides of the political spectrum in saying that he wants to see what happens during Florida’s in-person early voting period — which begins Oct. 19 in big Florida counties — before he gets a clear picture on what’s happening.
“There’s no historical comparison. That’s the problem … There are so many pieces to the puzzle,” McDonald said, pointing to changes in voting patterns on both sides due to the campaigns’ tactics, the candidates’ rhetoric, the pandemic and concerns about Postal Service delivery.
But though there’s no historical analogue, McDonald expects to see Republicans close the gap.
“On Election Day," he said, "a big red wave is coming."