1. Florida Politics

In Florida's early vote wars, Rick Scott leading but Charlie Crist gaining

Early voters head into the Jimmie Keel Public Library located at 2902 W Bearss Ave in Tampa on Monday . [SKIP O'ROURKE  |   Times]
Early voters head into the Jimmie Keel Public Library located at 2902 W Bearss Ave in Tampa on Monday . [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]
Published Oct. 28, 2014

The race for Florida governor is tied in the polls, but the past week has brought more good numbers for Democrat Charlie Crist than Gov. Rick Scott.

After the first full week of in-person early voting, Democrats have started to eat into Republicans' lead in casting pre-Election Day ballots — a margin in the GOP's favor of 138,000 of more than 1.8 million cast statewide.

In 2010, Republicans led Democrats by 12 percentage points in ballots cast before Election Day, when Scott went on to beat Democrat Alex Sink by just over 1 percent of the vote. As of Monday, the Republican lead for this election was about 7.6 percentage points.

In a sign of how tenuous Scott's lead appears, the governor reversed course and broke his word not to spend his personal millions on the race. An estimated 10,000 ads attacking Crist and promoting Scott are expected in the final week.

"I think they're pretty desperate," Crist said Monday at an early voting rally at Florida International University. "He wouldn't be spending that kind of money if he wasn't afraid."

The actual early and absentee votes won't be tabulated until Election Day, of course, so it's impossible to say how many votes each candidate has received so far.

But political professionals every day are carefully tracking who is casting votes, and the partisan breakdown can be a telling sign of partisan intensity and the get-out-the-vote operations for each campaign. Generally, Republicans and Democrats vote the party line, so the large numbers of pre-Election Day ballots from the GOP indicate Scott is ahead at this point.

Republicans like to compare this year's vote to 2012, a high-water mark for Democratic turnout. By that standard Democrats are underperforming.

"They have a week left to knock down a 138,000-vote advantage by Republicans and build up a durable lead. The whole Obama model is predicated on going into Election Day with a lead large enough that they can survive our natural Election Day advantage," said Scott's deputy campaign manager, Tim Saler, noting that Republicans are much more reliable voters than Democrats.

Democrats insist on referring to 2010, a GOP wave, because it was the last midterm election. Turnout is always far lower in non-presidential elections.

"For months Florida Republicans and national Republicans have been talking about Democrats having a turnout problem in midterm elections, and then when it turns out we don't have as much of a turnout problem, they all of a sudden want to compare this year to 2012," said Josh Geise, Florida Director of America Votes, which is coordinating voter turnout efforts for various Democratic-leaning groups such as labor unions and environmental groups.

But Republicans have adopted Obama campaign tactics in this governor's race. They organized and spent money early, aggressively targeting Republicans or those who live in Republican areas — called "fortress precincts" — who didn't vote in 2010 or 2012.

And they began defining Crist negatively with what has become a $64 million ad campaign. Crist and his supporters, by contrast, have spent about $32 million.

Polls continue to show a dead heat race, with the average of recent polls showing Crist with 44.2 percent support and Scott with 43.7 percent — far too close to call.

Crist, some veteran strategists say, will likely receive fewer Republican votes than Sink in 2010, but he likely has an advantage with independent voters. About 17 percent of the votes cast have been by third-party or unaffiliated voters, and polls generally show Crist leading by 3 to 5 percentage points among those voters.

"No one should feel comfortable. We have a lot of work still to do, but we feel very good about where we are," said Jackie Lee, Florida director of NextGen Climate, a Democratic environmental group funded by billionaire California investor Tom Steyer, working to mobilize Hispanic and younger voters.

Scott said he needed to spend some of his own money on his re-election because of the money Steyer is spending on the race.

"I don't think any of us expected this billionaire from California, who claims to be about the environment but made his money on coal, to stroke Charlie a $12 million check," Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera said Monday, referencing Steyer's former investments in fossil fuels.

That Democrats in Florida even have more than a token voter mobilization effort underway in a non-presidential year is something new.

Democrats had virtually no ground game in 2010. This year, not only does the Crist campaign have an aggressive voter mobilization effort in Democrat-rich South Florida, but groups including NextGen Climate and America Votes are aggressively working, too.

Crist adviser Steve Schale noted in a memo to supporters Monday that Democrats are outpacing their 2010 performance so far in 54 of Florida's 67 counties and are doing particularly well in the heavily populated Democratic strongholds of southeast Florida.

"Democrats in Dade are running 15 points better compared to the GOP today in Dade than we did in 2010, and 14 points better in both Broward and Palm Beach. In fact, in the latter two counties, Democrats have turned out roughly twice as many voters at this point in the election than we did in 2010, while in Dade, the number is about 76 percent more than 2010," Schale wrote, describing Crist as "uncomfortably ahead" and urging allies not to get complacent and let up on the gas.

South Florida turnout has been a special concern for Crist and Democrats.

If Palm Beach, Dade and Broward counties had voted at the statewide turnout average of 49 percent in 2010, Scott likely would have lost to Sink by as many as 250,000 votes instead of winning by more than 61,000.

While early voting has given Crist supporters more hope overall, some in Democrat-rich South Florida were spooked when the first Sunday of early voting had low turnout.

Sunday is a crucial day for early voting Democrats, especially African-Americans who have held "Souls to the Polls" events after church. Democrats say the most-important Souls to the Polls day will be this Sunday.

Crist said he wasn't worried because Democrats are improving in early voting statewide.

"That gap has been narrowed by almost half so far," Crist said, referring to his party's gains in the past week since early voting started.

"God is good. The weather's great," Crist said.

As Crist made his comments, the lieutenant governor stood with Republican protesters who chanted "Shame on You!" Some wore sandwich-board-like flip flops, to highlight Crist's reversals. Another waved a sign with Crist's face superimposed on the body of a chameleon. The Republicans also played a copy of a phone recording of Crist in 2006 where the then-Republican promised to govern as a conservative.

"Once the new numbers come up, we're going to be just fine because more people are voting more than even we expected," Lopez-Cantera said.