Early vote numbers in Florida should spook Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves while visiting a homecoming game for Bethune-Cookman University Wildcats as they take on the Delaware State Hornets in Daytona Beach on Saturday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves while visiting a homecoming game for Bethune-Cookman University Wildcats as they take on the Delaware State Hornets in Daytona Beach on Saturday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Published Nov. 1, 2016

Based on the votes cast so far in Florida, Democrats should be spooked. Well, so should Republicans for that matter, since the voting points to a razor-thin, too-close-to-call race.

The good news for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats is that pre-Election Day voting by Hispanics has soared. The good news for Donald Trump and Republicans? White voters also are voting in big numbers and two key voter groups for Clinton — African-Americans and voters under age 35 — have not been turning out as they did in 2012.

African-Americans accounted for 22 percent of the votes cast before Election Day in 2012, but only 15 percent so far this year.

It's no accident, in other words, that Clinton campaigned Saturday at a Bethune-Cookman University football game and in a heavily black neighborhood in Daytona Beach. Or why Bill Clinton today will campaign at the Wildwood Recreation Center in a largely African-American area of St. Petersburg.

Only a week or so ago, many Florida Republicans fretted and Democrats gloated over the trend with mail ballots cast. Democrats had nearly erased the Republicans' long-standing advantage in mail voting and were positioned to take the lead quickly after early, in-person voting started.

Pundits and some political operatives started to talk about a Clinton rout in Florida. Now, most are back to questioning whether she can eke out a win.

For the first time in six weeks, Trump leads in the average of Florida polls, 44.8 percent to 44.3 percent. And that's before any polling on the latest email revelation.

"Right now, the GOP is ahead of where I thought they would be — albeit not by a lot," Democratic consultant Steve Schale wrote on his blog Monday after the first weekend of early, in-person voting. "It doesn't mean Trump or Clinton is winning — nope, it means it is a dog fight for turnout. So if you want your candidate to win, go to the local field office and get to work."

Eight days before Election Day 2012, Democrats had cast about 13,000 more votes in Florida than Republicans. As of Monday afternoon, Republicans had cast nearly 9,000 more ballots than Democrats.

Ryan Tyson, vice president of political operations for Associated Industries of Florida, said AIF's polls have consistently shown Clinton narrowly leading Trump in Florida by an average of 3 percent, but the votes cast early and by mail to date show lower than expected participation with groups that are key to her winning in Florida.

"The pivotal demographics that were the cornerstone for how President Obama won by .9 percent, or 74,000 votes, was strength in turnout by African-Americans, millennials and Hispanics," Tyson said. "Hillary has never enjoyed the same level of enthusiasm as the president did with these groups. I wouldn't say Democrats are sweating bullets today, I would say they're hoping for better weather down south and thinking, 'We've got work to do these next eight days.' "

It's worth reminding people that Florida's "Election Day" is more like election month, since more than half the vote is cast by mail or early in person. Nobody counts votes until the polls close Nov. 8, but we do know who has voted.

As of Monday afternoon that included about 1,510,00 Republicans, 1,501,000 Democrats and 721,000 Floridians registered to neither major party.

We don't know how these people voted, but we do know that party registration is generally a good guide to predicting how that person will vote, and we know that the independent voters who have cast ballots so far have been heavily white and older — more likely Trump supporters.

Leslie Wimes, an African-American activist in Palm Beach County, has been vocal in criticizing the Clinton campaign for not reaching out more aggressively to black Floridians. On Monday she said it may be too late.

"The fact that she would be the first female president is not as inspirational to the African-American community as it was having the first African-American president," said Wimes, adding that the Clinton campaign seemed to pour far more resources into courting and energizing Hispanic and other groups.

On Saturday, she noted, Jennifer Lopez headlined a Miami concert with Marc Anthony and Clinton. Days earlier, Clinton running mate Tim Kaine campaigned in Miami's Liberty City area with rapper Pusha T.

"First of all, who is Pusha T? Nobody's going to break their neck to go see Pusha T," Wimes said. "Her campaign is not putting the same sort of resources into getting out the vote in the black community as it is with others."

Republicans had 470,000 mail ballots not yet returned as of Monday and Democrats nearly 541,000.

The old truism stands. It all comes down to turning out your voters.