It could be the single most important question for the presidential election in Florida: Can Barack Obama translate thousands of new Democratic voters into thousands of more votes?
Because on the surface, the voter registration trend in Florida should be worrisome to John McCain and Republicans, who can't afford to lose Florida's 27 electoral votes. While the state GOP added about 126,000 voters this year through July, Florida Democrats added 236,000.
Since January, Democrats accounted for nearly 45 percent of about 530,000 new registrations in Florida, compared with 24 percent for Republicans and 31 percent for independents and minor parties. More than twice as many new Hispanic voters — a heavily courted electorate — registered Democratic as Republican, as did new voters under 35.
"Floridians are enthusiastic for change," state Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman said. "With so many new Democratic voters, a record number of volunteers, and great candidates running for offices across Florida, we are seeing a wave of support building to elect Barack Obama and Democrats up and down the ticket."
Florida has nearly 4.4-million Democrats, 3.9-million Republicans and 2.3-million voters who aren't registered with either party, though those numbers can be misleading because so many North Florida Democrats vote Republican in presidential races. Since Election Day in 2004, Republican voter rolls swelled nearly 1 percent in Florida and Democratic numbers grew 3 percent.
The Obama campaign has launched an unprecedented voter mobilization effort in Florida that is focused heavily on registering African-Americans, Hispanics and younger people who have never voted.
Registering voters is not the same thing as getting them to vote, however. Four years ago, the John Kerry campaign and several lavishly funded groups crowed about Democrats outregistering Republicans by more than 60,000 votes, but President Bush still comfortably won Florida.
Of the new voters in 2004, Republicans beat Democrats in turnout by 10 percentage points.
"The Florida Democrat organization can't hold a candle to the (our) time-tested strategy of recruiting volunteers and focusing on the people who are likely to vote, and they certainly can't do it by focusing all their energy on young people and those who have never voted before in their lives," said state GOP spokesman Erin VanSickle.
"The Democrats have beaten us in new registration before, but what they don't do is turn those registered voters out at the polls. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is who turns out and actually casts a vote."
Unlike 2004, when Democratic voter registration groups were legally barred from coordination with the Kerry-Edwards campaign, Democrats this year essentially have one organization. Much like Bush-Cheney, they also are relying more heavily on volunteers than paid canvassers.
"We have a volunteer system like no new campaign has seen in decades," said Obama deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand. "You only need a certain amount of structure when you're operating within our campaign. The volunteer system is so serious with our supporters we're able to get operational in a very short amount of time."
The deadline has passed for registering for the Aug. 26 primary election, and the registration deadline for the general election is Oct. 6.
In the new numbers, Democrats see implications that could extend well beyond this year.
More than 131,000 new voters under 35 registered as Democrats, for instance, compared with 63,392 who registered as Republicans, according to Democratic figures. Among new Hispanic voters, Democrats gained 49,381 and Republicans 19,759. Only 3,400 new African-American voters registered Republican, compared with more than 75,000 who registered Democratic.
But it seems not all Florida Democrats are fired up for Obama. More than 40,500 switched to the GOP, while more than 46,000 Republicans became Democrats.
Times staff writers Barbara Behrendt, David DeCamp, Will Van Sant and Bill Varian contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8241.