By ARMANDO GARCIA and WILL MCDUFFIE, ABC News
(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) — As a record-breaking early voting cycle winds down in Florida, and with the race for president between Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden remaining close in the state, both campaigns are hoping to squeeze as many votes out of their candidate’s supporters as possible in the final days.
Combining mail-in votes and early in-person votes, over 8.2 million ballots have already been cast in Florida as of Saturday morning, according to the Florida Division of Elections, surpassing the 6.6 million early votes in the 2016 presidential election.
Democrats hold a lead by 116,051 votes over Republicans in turnout among registered voters, a result of a monthslong campaign by the state Democratic Party to encourage voters to vote by mail ahead of Election Day. But Republicans have been closing the gap, out-voting Democrats in person by 528,000 during the early voting period.
With only two days left of early voting in many counties (and just one in some), the GOP is trying to capitalize on the momentum so it’s better poised to earn a victory on Tuesday in a state that has historically been won by thin margins.
“[Democrats] did a great job of having their voters register for absentee ballots, and then did a great job of having those voters return those ballots,” a Trump campaign adviser in Florida told ABC News. “We worked very hard to register more Republicans than had ever been registered before.”
According to data released this month by Florida election officials, Republicans narrowed their deficit in voter registration to 134,242 voters, down from 327,483 in 2016.
To turn out those voters, Republicans have relied on campaign methods that Democrats in Florida have largely avoided during the coronavirus pandemic: in-person voter contact and packed — mostly maskless — rallies across the state.
“I know people like to roll their eyes at the rallies, but they do energize the voters,” according to the campaign adviser, who said officials provide masks and encourage social distancing, though attendees rarely adhere to the guidance. “People like to say they energize the base — they don’t. They energize voters, and sometimes the voters are the base, but not always.”
Democrats, for their part, say it’s important to supplement their vote-by-mail advantage with strong in-person turnout between now and Election Day.
“Obviously we are pushing our voters out for early vote, but we’ll make sure that once we have a sense come Sunday night what’s missing, we’ll be making sure we keep our foot on the gas Monday as well,” said Karen Andre, a senior adviser for the Biden campaign in Florida. “We’re going to make sure we’re banking as many of our votes as possible, but have a readymade program to push all the way through the end of the day on Election Day.”
The Biden campaign and Democratic organizers have launched a myriad of get-out-the-vote events throughout the state, from golf cart parades in The Villages, the largest senior retirement community in the nation, to “parrandas to the polls,” a musical and festive tradition in the Puerto Rican community.
Biden’s Florida campaign has also enlisted an army of surrogates — like rapper Common and Latin American actress America Ferrera — and Republican backers, like former Republican state Sen. Paula Dockery, to criss-cross the state and make sure voters have a plan to get to the polls early.
This week, former President Barack Obama stumped for his former vice president along the Interstate 4 corridor, one of the most hotly contested regions of swing voters in Florida, where Puerto Ricans are the largest Latino community, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau Data.
“We got one week, Orlando, one week — si se puede — one week until the most important election of our lifetimes,” said Obama. “And you don’t have to wait until next Tuesday to cast your ballot.”
A whopping 1.7 million ballots have been cast by independents or unaffiliated voters, according to Florida’s Division of Elections. Although it’s impossible to know who they voted for until results are released, both parties see an opportunity to court the unaffiliated voters, whose political preferences may not be so cut and dry.
Florida Democratic strategist Steven Schale has been analyzing early vote data and thinks that while registered Republicans might continue to close the turnout gap in the following days, Democrats have an opportunity to win over unaffiliated voters, referred to sometimes as NPAs.
David Odenwald, 61, an unaffiliated voter in Atlantic Beach, a suburb of Jacksonville in Duval County, voted early for Biden after casting a ballot for Trump in 2016.
“I was ready for a change [in 2016],” Odenwald, who drives for Uber, told ABC News. “I had nothing to go on with Trump; I just was no way going to vote for Hillary Clinton. The outright lies, deception. The whole family is out for themselves.”
But Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic became too much for Odenwald, who used to work in health care. “This pandemic is real, the numbers are going up, and he’s trying to play like it’s almost over. It’s far from over,” he said.
As for Trump’s rallies? “They’re like a super-spreader, and he doesn’t care,” said Odenwald. “To me, he’s going to be responsible for a lot of deaths.”
Schale said Biden may have an edge with the unaffiliated voters due to their demographics.
“More and more younger voters of color are registering as NPAs, so the non-party affiliate voters are probably a little bit more Democratic in their party orientation than they were 10 years ago,” said Schale.
Twenty-one percent of unaffiliated voters are Hispanic and 7% are Black, according to Schale. Over one-fourth of them are new or sporadic voters. Many of them, he says, are Puerto Ricans.
At a drive-in rally in North Miami, Obama took a shot at the president’s handling of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.
“When a hurricane devastates Puerto Rico, a president is supposed to help it rebuild, not toss paper towels, withhold billions of dollars in aid until just before an election. We’ve got a president who actually suggested selling Puerto Rico,” he said.
Yet turnout so far in Miami-Dade County, where Obama spoke, is causing anxiety for Democrats, who worry that Biden is not in position to carry the heavily Democratic county by a large enough margin.
“The biggest cause for concern for Democrats is the gap in Hispanic voting in Miami-Dade,” Matthew Isbell, a Democratic data analyst, told ABC News.
According to Isbell, turnout by Hispanic Democrats in the county lags behind 2016’s numbers.
“That’s pretty significant,” said Isbell. “I think it’s finally starting to spark some alarm bells among some of the different Democratic organizations down there.”
Florida is a “war for turnout,” according to Josh Mendelsohn, CEO of Hawkfish, a Democratic data and technology firm. He said it’s all going to come down to what candidate can rally support among voters who have yet to vote.
“Campaigns ought to reorient themselves to take advantage of the fact that they can now narrow those last persuasive arguments they’re trying to make — the proverbial closing arguments,” he said.
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