Florida Republicans cut Democrats’ registration edge to historic low

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Workers at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department test a voting machine on Wednesday. | Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

TALLAHASSEE — Republicans in Florida, a must-win state for President Donald Trump, have narrowed the voter registration gap with Democrats to the lowest level in at least three decades, giving the GOP a shot of momentum as they continue to trail in early turnout.

Republicans now lag Democrats by just 134,242 registered voters, down from 327,483 when Trump won Florida by fewer than 113,000 votes in 2016. The gain is a byproduct of the Trump campaign’s extensive face-to-face ground game and voter registration operation, which continued as Joe Biden and Florida Democrats pulled back from those traditional activities after the coronavirus pandemic erupted in March.

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The shift means the two parties, statistically speaking, are almost evenly matched when it comes to raw numbers, with Democrats holding a narrow 1 percent lead. Final voter registration data released Thursday by Florida election officials show 5.3 million Democrats, 5.1 million Republicans and 3.7 million people with no major party affiliation.

Florida Democrats turned much of their focus to boosting vote-by-mail turnout, which has helped them bank 430,000 more votes than Republicans three weeks ahead of Election Day.

Democrats can’t compete with the Trump campaign’s “superior ground game and infrastructure,” Trump Victory spokesperson Emma Vaughn said in an email. “The Sunshine State is ready to deliver.”

The Biden campaign has no regrets about pulling back traditional get-out-the-vote activities amid a global pandemic, even as Democrats’ once-dominant advantage has been whittled down.

“Democrats have amassed an overwhelming vote by mail advantage and turned out in historic numbers for the primary election in August,” Biden Florida communications director Carlie Waibel said in an email. “Democrats are leading in the metrics that will determine this election and returning their ballots at a higher rate than Republicans — and we aren’t letting up.”

Trump has vilified voting by mail, telling his supporters without evidence that it is ripe for widespread fraud. As a result, Republicans are expected to vote in huge numbers on Election Day, a wave Trump is banking on to overcome Democrats’ early voting advantages.

While Biden’s team remains confident, others in the party have expressed concern about the campaign’s turn away from traditional registration efforts.

“It’s late in the game now,” state Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat, told POLITICO in late September. “There’s been no pushback from us, meaning that for every 100 doors that Republicans have proverbially knocked on, it’s not like they pissed people off to the point where they’ve run to the Democratic Party because they’re pissed at the GOP.“

While the Biden campaign and Florida Democratic Party have limited in-person registration activities, outside groups continued to register votes. That includes Forward Florida Action, a group led until recently by Democrat Andrew Gillum, who pledged to register 1 million voters after his narrow loss to Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2018.

The group worked with a collection of progressive groups to submit 250,000 voter registration applications. It also shifted to a more digital strategy as the coronavirus pandemic intensified over the summer.

“While Democrats were preparing our voters to vote safely by mail in the pandemic and building up an 800,000 vote-by-mail request advantage, the Republicans continued to put the public at risk by conducting in-person voter registration activities and simultaneously discouraging their voters from vote-by-mail,” said Ryan Hurst, the group’s executive director.

In addition to their topline lead, Democrats also have turned out low-propensity voters, people who do not consistently cast a ballot in election years. Of the more than 2 million votes cast in Florida so far, Democrats have banked 113,000 more ballots than Republicans from people who didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election.

“These are no party affiliated voters who sat out 2016 because they thought their vote wouldn’t matter,” Democratic consultant Kevin Cate tweeted. “Well, they’ve changed their minds this year.”

In the hope of building a wave of in-person Election Day voters, Republicans continued to register huge numbers of people until the final days of Florida’s registration period, which ended Oct. 5. The Democratic advantage was down to 185,000 voters in late September, a number that Republicans whittled down by more than 50,000 in the final two weeks.

“There is clearly a strong correlation in voter registration advantage and Democrat’s success in Florida,” said Ryan Tyson, a Republican pollster and strategist. “That advantage appears to have dissipated.”

Democrats have long held large voter registration advantages in Florida even as Republicans dominated state-level elections, in part because of North Florida Dixiecrats, registered Democrats who for years have voted Republican.

The Democrat lead peaked during Barack Obama’s first run in 2008, when he defeated Republican John McCain in Florida by 3 percentage points. That cycle, Democrats held a 637,777-person registration advantage.

Four years later, the margin had narrowed, but Democrats still outpaced Republicans by 535,987 voters when Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney by 2 percentage points.

Public polling has shown Biden up in Florida by 3 or 4 percentage points, near or within the margin of error for most surveys, and there is an expectation that this year’s presidential race will be won on a razor-thin margin just as it was in 2016, when Trump eked out a one-point victory.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to whose folks are most motivated,” said incoming co-House Minority Leader Evan Jenne, a Broward County Democrat helping run the party’s statehouse races this cycle. “It always comes down to energy, it will again this year.”

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