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Florida GOP loses ground among new voters

The Republican Party is bleeding voters in Florida.

Last year was the first election year in more than three decades in which Florida Republicans stopped gaining ground on Democrats in voter registration. And since last year's election, Democrats netted 34,000 more registered voters than Republicans. As of Jan. 31, Democrats accounted for 42 percent of the electorate and Republicans for 36 percent in America's biggest battleground state.

That's the biggest registration advantage Democrats have enjoyed in more than a decade.

The trend partly reflects the damaged Republican brand across the country. Americans identifying themselves as Democrats outnumber those identifying themselves as Republicans by 10 percentage points, the biggest gap in party identification in 24 years, according to an average of polls conducted over the last year by the New York Times.

But the Florida statistics also reflect a state Democratic Party no longer on life support. Barack Obama's lavishly funded presidential campaign provided a giant lift to Florida Democrats last year and within the next few weeks the Obama political organization is expected to start adding 35 to 40 political staffers to keep the grass roots organizing momentum revving in the state.

"The Democrats are back in town, so to speak," said University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican who is working on a book about the Florida GOP.

"When Republicans took over the Florida Senate in 1994, and the House in 1996, and the Governor's Office in 1998, a lot of Democrats were surprised and thought it was a fluke. What they finally realized was the Democrats had become complacent and the Republicans had gotten organized. … Now I think it's the Republicans who have the potential complacency problem."

Voters registered with neither party make up more than one in five votes in Florida, and Republicans have managed to overcome the Democrats' traditional voter registration advantage by winning over independent voters and with superior get-out-the-vote operations. Democrats have dramatically improved their voter mobilization programs in recent years, however.

State Republican chairman Jim Greer, who last year wrongly predicted the Democrats' voter registration gains wouldn't translate into many actual votes, is now making voter registration a top priority. Starting in April, he expects to launch voter registration drives in all 67 counties.

Among the most ominous trends for the state GOP? Younger voters.

Exit polls showed Obama beat John McCain among Florida voters 18-29 by 24 percentage points. Just as Ronald Reagan won over younger voters and kept them aligned with the GOP for a generation, today's younger voters stand to be a reliable Democratic voting block.

That threat also is reflected in Greer's priorities for the coming year. He has created a "youth outreach department" to promote the party to young voters and plans a big youth conference this summer. The party is also borrowing a page from the Obama campaign by ramping up its technological capacity to promote the GOP.

"We're going to develop alternative methods of communicating with the party, and we're going to be developing outlets for people to help drive the Republican message and in some cases create the Republican message," Greer said. "We're going to be utilizing that with much more extensive use of blogging, FaceBook, Twitter, multiple components."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

Florida GOP loses ground among new voters 03/18/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 20, 2009 3:56pm]
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