Florida is arguably the true ground zero for the 2016 presidential election. Every plausible scenario for Trump winning 270 electoral votes and the presidency includes a win in Florida. So a Clinton victory there could be a knockout punch. The polls in Florida have been very tight; Hillary Clinton leads by one percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average (with Johnson and Stein included). Barack Obama won Florida by less than one percent in 2012, well under his national popular-vote margin.
So the Sunshine State is a continuing battleground, and one factor that has brought it even more attention than usual is the very high level of early voting (both in person and by mail ballot) evident this year — 6.4 million votes so far, as compared to 4.7 million in 2012. In-person early voting ended yesterday — traditionally a day when African-Americans make a church-based “souls to the polls” push. The nearly complete numbers for in-person voting in Florida give Democrats a narrow lead, as is also the case with returned absentee ballots (which will continue to drift in until the close of voting tomorrow; they must be received by then). At present, registered Democrats have a combined advantage over registered Republicans of 88,000 votes (2.56 million to 2.47 million), with independents accounting for another 1.23 million. That’s a percentage advance of 1.4 points — about half the final Democratic early-voting advantage in 2012.
Some of the increase in early voting is attributable to campaign activity (the Florida GOP is carrying most of the water for underorganized Trump), and some to a change in the law where those who cast absentee ballots in and since 2014 have automatically been sent ballots this year. Since the partisan breakdown for both types of early voting are very similar, it is not clear that either party has benefited disproportionately from the rising use of voting by mail.
You can hear all kinds of arguments about the significance of the early vote in Florida. One much-quoted Florida expert, Steven Schale, a former Obama campaign operative, thinks the narrower Democratic advantage disguises a stronger vote than in 2012 thanks to the reregistration of many conservative Democrats and independents as Republicans (many of them reregistering in order to vote in the closed Florida presidential primary earlier this year). In other words, there will be fewer DINOs voting for Trump than those who voted for Romney in 2012.
Latino early voting in Florida was up significantly — about 86 percent according to numbers released on Monday. And although there was a lot of buzz about African-American early voting being down, the final numbers show them participating at around 9 percent above 2012 levels, thanks to a major burst of last-minute activity.
The key questions right now involve guesstimates of where the independent vote will go, and the usual murky matter of whether the two parties are “cannibalizing” votes that would have been cast on Tuesday or mobilizing marginal voters. On this second point, Florida political scientist Daniel Smith estimates that a slightly higher percentage of Republicans voting early this year voted on Election Day in 2012. Of greater importance, he thinks, is this data point:
So far, 36% of the 907k Hispanics who have voted in 2016 didn’t vote by any method in 2012. That’s a full 12 points higher than whites, and will likely be the key to who wins the presidency.
It’s worth remembering that an unusually high percentage of Florida Latinos are registered as Republicans (26 percent) or as independents (35 percent). Indeed, it is this last number that convinces some observers that the independent vote in Florida will lean Democratic this year.
All in all, Florida will remain a mystery until Tuesday. But combined with the early-voting news from Nevada, it does seem increasingly plausible that the Latino-bashing that helped Donald Trump win the Republican presidential nomination could ultimately be the prime cause of his defeat on November 8. If Latino independents and even Republicans in Florida vote against him in unusually large numbers, this must-win state for Trump could guarantee a Clinton presidency.