TALLAHASSEE — Election Day already is over for thousands of Floridians.
The first 3,000 mail ballots cast are just a fraction of the eventual turnout but represent the changing landscape of elections in Florida. County supervisors are mailing ballots earlier than ever, and races are being won or lost before the polls open.
No longer can campaigns crescendo on Election Day. Instead, political strategists say, candidates must peak at least 15 days ahead, when early voting begins, and find a way to maintain the momentum while sustaining the additional costs of the final stretch.
"Candidates used to be able to gain their financial footing three weeks before an election. But those days are over," said Republican operative Roger Stone, who has worked on campaigns in more than a dozen states, including Florida.
"If you aren't fully engaged in terms of advertising and messaging by three weeks out, you can still win Election Day," he said. "But you'll lose the election."
Attorney General Bill McCollum claimed he lost the Republican gubernatorial primary in August for that very reason. His campaign estimates showed he won more votes cast on Election Day, but the margin could not overcome the lead Rick Scott had already amassed.
While polls showed Scott's double-digit lead disappeared by Election Day, state election data will be available in December to show exactly where and when votes for Scott and McCollum were cast. Forty-four percent of this year's primary voters cast early or absentee ballots, a 65 percent increase from the primary four years earlier.
In 2008, 54 percent of ballots were cast by mail or at early voting sites, the first time in Florida that Election Day accounted for less than half of total turnout. Early voting could reach that threshold again in November.
County elections supervisors are dropping absentee ballots in the mail earlier, too.
By the end of September, voters in 50 counties — including those in six of the 10 biggest — will start receiving mail ballots, according to a Times/Herald survey of all 67 county elections supervisors.
At least three counties — Franklin, Gulf and Liberty — mailed absentee ballots Sept. 16, 47 days before Election Day. Some overseas ballots went out earlier: Leon County mailed ballots abroad Sept. 10.
Knowing which voters have a ballot in their hands is invaluable information for candidates.
The list of voters who request absentee ballots is not a public record, but the state makes an exception for campaigns, political parties and political committees. They then target those voters through the mail, followed by phone calls.
But the cost of contacting a voter, particularly the production, printing and postage of mail pieces, adds up quickly for campaigns. If a candidate wants to boost TV spending during early voting, it can cost about $1.5 million to blanket the state for a week.
McCollum was not able to match Scott's spending during early voting.
When all overseas absentee ballots were mailed July 8, Scott had been averaging $1.7 million per week on television for nearly three months. When early voting sites opened, Scott upped his spending to $4.5 million per week on television.
Democrats have noted that dynamic.
Alex Sink announced her running mate for governor two weeks before the deadline. And Florida Democrats are holding more than 100 get-out-the-vote events around the state today.
Sink campaign manager Jim Cassady e-mailed supporters Thursday, urging Democrats to sign up for mail ballots by highlighting McCollum's claim that he lost the election by losing early voting.
"Yes, vote by mail is that important," Cassady wrote.
But if early voters handed Scott the GOP nomination, they also may have delivered the White House to Barack Obama.
Steve Schale ran Obama's Florida campaign, and he's advising Sink's campaign for governor. He said the Obama campaign pushed so many Democrats to early voting sites in 2008 that it was likely Republican John McCain earned more votes on Election Day.
"I confidently told Barack Obama that he won Florida the day before Election Day," Schale said.
But deciding an election so soon risks handing a public office to a candidate whose campaign might implode from scandal just before Election Day, some experts said.
"Early voting is pernicious to our political system," said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University.
Gans also argues that early voting depresses turnout.
The 2008 presidential election helped drive the highest turnout since 1960, but among the 12 states with the lowest turnout, 11 offered some form of "convenience voting." Meanwhile, just six of the 13 states with the highest increases in voter turnout offered early voting or mail ballots.
County elections supervisors disagree.
In Pinellas County, Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark trumpets mail voting as more convenient for voters and cost-effective for taxpayers.
In 2008, about 43,000 Pinellas voters signed up for mail ballots for the presidential primary. Ten months later, requests were up 400 percent.
This year, a stunning 59 percent of Pinellas primary voters cast their ballots by mail.
In Palm Beach County, Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher also encourages early and absentee voting.
But Bucher said she waits until the last day of early voting to cast her own ballot.
"I wait until the very end," she said. "Because I know that the really bad stuff doesn't hit until the last week."
Michael C. Bender can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or email@example.com.