TALLAHASSEE — Republicans across Florida have mounted an early lead in returning absentee ballots and are showing up in greater numbers than Democrats since early voting began Monday.
The GOP touted the numbers as a sign of impending victory on Nov. 2. Democrats dismissed it as meaningless after just three days of early voting results.
Florida Republicans have long flexed organizational muscle by requesting and returning mail or absentee ballots in greater numbers than Democrats. But the GOP has not outpaced Democrats in early voting in Florida since it began eight years ago.
Early voting began Oct. 18, and ends Oct. 30 in some counties, Oct. 31 in others.
The first three days of early voting, coupled with returned absentee or mail ballots, show Republicans outpacing Democrats by 148,000 voters, according to figures provided by both political parties.
The Democrats noted that Republicans had an almost identical advantage at this point in the last off-year election in 2006, in which Democrats Alex Sink and Bill Nelson won statewide races for chief financial officer and U.S. Senate.
"There's no significance here," Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff said. "We're three days into early voting and 12 days till the election."
The early GOP advantage includes a lead of 124,444 in returned absentees and 23,668 in early voters, the Republican Party said. Those figures could validate the so-called enthusiasm gap said to favor the GOP this year.
They include Miami construction worker Miguel Bay, 51, who's struggling to find work in weak economic times. He voted early Wednesday at a library in Coral Gables, where he voiced enthusiasm for the Republican brand and disappointment with President Barack Obama.
"We need changes," Bay said after voting for Marco Rubio for U.S. Senate and Rick Scott for governor. "They're on the right path. I like reclaiming America. I don't like the social issues that Obama wants, redistributing wealth."
Bay said Obama should have given tax breaks to businesses so they could hire people. "I've gone from building houses to painting rooms," he said.
At east Tampa's College Hill branch library, nursing student Carla Stennett, 33, voted for Democrats. She said U.S. Senate hopeful Kendrick Meek's support for President Obama helped lure her to the polls.
"We need to get out and vote so it's a better place for Americans in the future. The first step is voting," said Stennett, who has struggled to find work after graduating from a beauty school and community college.
Further upstate, in the conservative Panhandle, Mahala Fowler of Bonifay, a registered nurse, voted early for Scott and other GOP candidates, even though she's a registered Democrat.
"This country is in disarray," Fowler, 45, said as she walked to her pickup, parked outside the elections office in Chipley. "I want Republicans in there."
Asked whether as a Democrat she considered voting for Sink for governor, Fowler said: "No. She's all for Obama."
In Pembroke Pines, Democrat Sangeeta Porbanderwala, 46, said her vote for Sink for governor was more a vote against Scott. "I was turned off by Rick Scott," she said. "The ads I saw were very negative."
Independents could play a decisive role in a close statewide race, such as the Scott-Sink contest where polls show Sink with a sizeable lead among those voters.
No-party-affiliation voter Kyle Jablonski of Southwest Ranches in Broward County said he voted for Sink for governor and Gov. Charlie Crist, an independent, for Senate.
"I'm not angry. I can't complain," said the 20-year-old college student, who voted Wednesday in Pembroke Pines. "Sure, the country is in rough shape, but I'm positive things will get better."
Across the country, more than 3 million Americans have already cast ballots, and Republicans are gaining ground in turning out early voters compared to 2008 in such pivotal states as North Carolina, Louisiana, Maryland, Iowa and Nevada.
Elections are all about turnout, and more than a third of all Florida voters will have cast their ballots by the time polls open Nov. 2.
With so much at stake, both political parties spend vast resources to make sure their most committed members get out and vote. Still, Florida turnout is expected to fall far short of the 75 percent in the presidential election of 2008. Statewide turnout in 2006 was 47 percent.
The state Legislature in recent years has removed barriers to obtaining a mail ballot, now known as "no excuse" absentee voting, and early voting has steadily gained in popularity since 2002.
About four in 10 people who turned out for the Aug. 24 primary voted early or by mail, a trend elections officials say will likely continue in the Nov. 2 general election.
Through Wednesday, more than 193,000 people had voted early, including 16,000 voters in Miami-Dade, nearly 15,000 in Broward, 14,000 in Hillsborough and 1,600 in Pinellas.
Times/Herald staff Marc Caputo, Times staff writers Ileana Morales and Emily Nipps, and Herald staff writers Sergio Bustos and Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.