As Clinton and Trump race nears end, Florida's early turnout too close to call

People wait in line to vote Friday outside the North Miami Public Library. Early voting by Africa-Americans rose after President Barack Obama made emotional speeches in Miami and Jacksonville on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
People wait in line to vote Friday outside the North Miami Public Library. Early voting by Africa-Americans rose after President Barack Obama made emotional speeches in Miami and Jacksonville on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
Published Nov. 5, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's Division of Elections showed Republicans with a razor-thin ballot advantage of 1,833 over Democrats early Friday morning, based on nightly reports from all counties.

Even though that makes the presidential race in Florida between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump neck-and-neck, both sides declared that they had the decisive edge heading into the final weekend before Election Day.

Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters during a Friday conference call that Democrats had safe leads in North Carolina and Florida that would preserve a victory.

"Our campaign has organized to leverage this early voting period to build a firewall in states and build out a lead that Donald Trump is incapable of overcoming," Mook said.

The Republican National Committee crunched Florida's turnout numbers very differently and said they work to Trump's advantage.

Bill Dunn, the RNC's director of early and absentee voting, said the GOP has 1.5 percent more of the early voting share than it did in Florida in 2012, while Democrats have 5 percent less of the share.

Dunn said 420,000 more Florida voters so far have requested mail ballots than in the entire 2012 election, but he didn't mention that Democratic requests exceed Republican requests by about 82,000.

"Even with the influx in voter activity, Republicans are significantly outperforming compared to this point in 2012," Dunn told reporters during a Friday night conference call.

Everywhere else, the battle between Clinton and Trump is too close to call. Virtually every analysis of the nation's electoral map shows that Trump must win Florida to get the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

Clinton could still win without Florida, but the Democrats' goal is to deny Trump from winning it.

The partisan makeup of ballots cast is the best sign of how the two major parties are turning out voters.

More Republicans have cast ballots by mail, while more Democrats have voted early. The two parties' advantages in each category are almost identical, and both parties are racing to "bank" as many ballots as possible before Election Day.

"We always do better toward the end," said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. "We vote later."

A slight shift in the Democrats' favor came after President Barack Obama made two emotional get-out-the-vote speeches in widely televised Thursday rallies targeting younger voters on Miami and Jacksonville.

With Obama rallying voters in two key media markets, early voting by African-Americans spiked Thursday, according to University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith, who analyzes Florida voting trends on a daily basis.

Smith tweeted Friday that about 48,500 black voters cast ballots early in person Thursday. That's the most in any day since early voting started in most of the state's largest counties on Oct. 24.

Democrats hope to expand their lead in the two final days of early voting this weekend in most of the state's major cities with get-out-the vote efforts at African-American churches known as Souls to the Polls.

Obama's appeals came amid mounting anxiety among Democrats because African-Americans were voting in smaller numbers in Florida than in 2012, when he won re-election and narrowly carried Florida by slightly less than 1 percent of the vote.

Black voters make up 13.4 percent of Florida's electorate and are a core Democratic Party constituency.

Still, ballots are not the same as votes.

The Democrats were including in their count nearly 22,000 ballots that are in question because of signature defects or that are provisional ballots cast by people whose identity could not be confirmed at the polls, party spokesman Max Steele said.

Some of those ballots will be counted as valid and some will not. Provisional voters have until next Thursday, two days after the election, to submit proof of their identity.

In Florida four years ago, 42,745 voters cast provisional ballots, according to the state, and 24,633 or 58 percent were counted as valid.

Elections supervisors say that even with a larger turnout, fewer provisional ballots will be cast this time because of a change in election law that allows voters to update their addresses at the polls in counties that use electronic poll books.

Through Thursday, nearly 5.3 million Floridians cast ballots by mail or at early voting sites, easily a new record in a statewide election in Florida.

That's 41 percent of the total electorate of a record 12.9 million voters, and the surge includes a lot of new Hispanic voters who have been mobilized by Clinton and the Democrats, especially in Central Florida's I-4 corridor.

Early voting continues in Florida through Sunday evening in 11 counties, including the seven with the most voters: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Orange and Duval.

All except Duval have more Democratic voters than Republicans and all but Duval voted for Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012.

One of the big turnout unknowns is how many people who have already voted early or by mail in Florida would have voted anyway at the polls on Election Day, and simply decided to vote a different way.

"The question is whether we're having a substitution effect," UF's Smith said.

Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen, Kristen M. Clark and Jeremy Wallace, Times Washington bureau chief Alex Leary and Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @stevebousquet.