In a sign of momentum for Hillary Clinton, Florida Democrats widened their lead over Republicans in casting early ballots in the nation’s biggest political battleground Saturday morning as she and Donald Trump paid late-minute visits to the Sunshine State.
The Democrats’ lead of 7,280 ballots cast pales in comparison to their advantage of about 104,000 early and absentee votes four years ago, however the state’s voter rolls have shifted significantly and neither Republicans nor Democrats can lay claim to having a clear advantage.
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“I think it’s trending well for HRC, but it’s definitely a toss up state,” Democratic consultant Steve Schale said via Twitter on Saturday.
Indeed, the trend in early voting and in the polls has generally been in Clinton’s favor.
Trump and his supporters, however, cling to the idea that there’s a hidden Trump vote that’s not showing up in the majority of polls.
“The numbers are looking good, I can tell you,” Trump told a crowd Saturday in Tampa where he urged supporters to “dream big.”
But Republican consultants and other campaigns in Florida fear that a nightmare is in the offing for Trump, who can’t win the White House if he loses Florida.
“There is a simple observation when looking at the last several elections … When my party outvotes the Dems, we win. When the Dems out vote us, we lose,” said one top Florida Republican who supports Trump but fears he’ll lose. “The numbers for Trump just don’t look like they’re there.”
Though the mail-in absentee ballots and in-person early votes ballots aren’t opened and tallied until Election Day, the parties and campaigns track the returns to gauge who’s turning out voters faster and therefore has a likely advantage. Generally speaking, the top-of-the-ticket candidate whose party casts more ballots before Election Day wins.
Though the public polls show a tight race, the trends in Clinton’s favor have been building in fits and starts for weeks. If the current turnout rates and polls continue, Clinton is on pace to win the state. However, Florida has a history of razor-thin elections and few are confident about hazarding an iron-clad prediction.
On Friday, the Clinton campaign got a boost when Democrats slightly nudged ahead of Republicans in casting in-person early votes and absentee ballots. And in-person early voting, which Democrats typically dominate in, will continue in most major urban Florida counties Saturday and Sunday, when President Obama returns to the Central Florida area, where the growing Puerto Rican community is giving Clinton an edge.
Hispanics account for about 16 percent of the voter rolls and have so far cast about 14 percent of the record 5.7 million early and absentee ballots cast by Floridians. In 2012 at this point, 3.9 million Floridians had voted.
A major bipartisan poll conducted for Univision and released this week shows Clinton with a historic 30-point lead over Trump among Hispanics. If the poll is right, Trump would need even more white voters to show for him at the polls or would need black voters to support him at disproportionately high rates for a Republican.
Hispanics are far ahead of where they were in casting early ballots relative to 2012, although African-Americans are behind. Still, in recent days black turnout has increased. African-Americans account for about 13 percent of the voter rolls in Florida and have cast about 11 percent of the ballots.
That means white voters, who are 66 percent of the rolls and disproportionately favor Trump, are still overperforming. But their share of the vote has been ticking down. As of Saturday morning, they had cast 68 percent of the ballots, a 1-point reduction from the day before.
Another potentially advantageous data point for Clinton is that about 55 percent of the pre-Election Day ballots have been cast by women, who overwhelmingly favor the Democrat.
One concern for Democrats is that Republicans usually out-vote them on Election Day. In 2012, for instance, Republicans edged Democrats in casting Election Day ballots by 1.1 percentage points. Democrats had a 3.7 point lead over the GOP at that time in casting pre-Election Day ballots. President Barack Obama ultimately carried Florida by less than a point, 74,309 votes.
Also, since 2012, the number of white voters has decreased by about 1.5 percentage points and the number of non-whites has increased by the same amount – a net 3-point shift that also bodes well for Clinton.
But comparisons to 2012 only go so far. In this election cycle, the Florida voter rolls rebalanced as hundreds of thousands of conservative Florida Democrats and independents finally registered as Republicans – many to vote for Trump in the state’s closed presidential preference primary. The Florida Democratic Party gained fewer former independent voters but registered more new voters than the GOP.
In looking at the votes made so far, more than 150,000 early and absentee ballots were cast by Republicans who were either Democrats or independents in 2012. But about 100,000 early and absentee ballots have been cast by Democrats who were either Republicans or independents in 2012. So a net 50,000 of the current GOP ballots in 2012 were counted in the Democratic column in 2012, even though those voters probably picked Republican Mitt Romney over President Obama.
Also, about 25 percent of the pre-Election Day votes so far were cast by those who didn’t vote in 2012, either because they were not on the voter rolls or they stayed home.
About 38 percent of Florida voters are registered as Democrats, 36 percent as Republicans and the rest are considered independents, the overwhelming majority of whom are no-party-affiliation voters.
A big X-factor: independents. They continue to be the fastest-growing group and they’ve cast 21 percent of the early ballots so far – up from 18 percent at this point in 2012. Though the independents who have voted are overwhelmingly white, the share of young and non-white voters is increasing.
As Democrats began pulling ahead in total early votes, Republicans said their opponents were “cannibalizing” their Election Day voters, meaning that Democrats would have fewer reliable supporters to show up Tuesday and keep their edge.
The stats, however, show that it’s Republicans who are doing more cannibalization. About 22 percent of the Republicans who have so far voted had voted on Election Day in 2012. But only 20 percent of Democrats who have so far voted now voted on Election Day four years ago. Independents are right in between at 21 percent.
There is one factor that neither polls nor voting trends can account for: weather. On Saturday in Miami Gardens it rained hard, which could depress turnout in one of South Florida’s heavily African-American cities just south of where Clinton spoke.
Democratic consultant Kevin Cate, who calculates the vote-differential between the candidates by averaging the polls into the ballots cast, said Trump is almost hopelessly behind. By Cate’s calculations, Trump is down about 90,000 raw votes.
“At this point, Trump would need to win over 50 percent of the remaining votes and that means it’s almost impossible to catch up. He needs an extra inning that doesn’t exist,” Cate said. Cate did acknowledge that there is one way that his calculations would be wrong and that Trump would win: if the polls are completely wrong.
“We use the have average of all these polls that are out there, and many of them skew Republican,” Cate said. “And they still show Trump losing.”
Obama, however, has warned against complacency in Florida.
“You know, sometimes when you get a lead, whether it’s in sports or in politics, you start feeling good,” he said. “You start celebrating too early … You start missing some free throws… And next thing you know, you look up, and you let it slip away.”