MIAMI — Heading into the Nov. 3 election, Florida Republicans are as close to parity with Democrats among registered voters as they’ve been in half a century or more.
The Florida Division of Elections on Thursday posted the final numbers for 2020 voter registration in the nation’s biggest battleground state. Republicans now head into Election Day with 5,169,012 voters and Democrats with 5,303,254 — a difference of just 134,242. The deadline to register was Oct. 6.
Those figures are good news for President Donald Trump, who beat 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by 112,000 votes despite his party having 327,438 fewer registered voters than Democrats. This fall, Trump heads into another close battle — this time against former Vice President Joe Biden — with that number slashed by more than half.
“Today’s voter registration numbers are proof of Florida’s enthusiasm for President Trump and Republicans,” said Emma Vaughn, a Trump Victory spokeswoman in Florida, where Republicans continued to knock on doors and talk to voters this summer despite the pandemic. “Democrats just can’t compete with that type of passion and Trump Victory’s superior ground game and infrastructure.”
Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters said the party was able to narrow the gap despite voter registration efforts from prominent Democrats, like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who last year pledged to register or “reengage” 1 million voters.
“Facing all that adversity and all those headwinds, the Florida Republican Party was able to prevail,” Gruters said. “Not only prevail — we were able to crush the Democrats.”
Democrats spent 2019 talking up plans to register scores of voters to build back toward the 658,000 registered voter advantage that helped Barack Obama win Florida and become president in 2008. Those plans were largely obliterated by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced both parties and presidential campaigns to pull their field staff and volunteers off the ground for months.
The Trump campaign returned to traditional field work far earlier than Democrats, which the GOP partly says contributed to its final numbers, described by Republicans as a historic achievement. A late surge in registration appears to have helped as well, given that state data showed Republicans trailing Democrats by 183,000 voters heading into September.
The state also regularly removes inactive and ineligible voters from the rolls, something Democrats say disproportionately affects their party. Another complication for the left: Florida’s restrictive implementation of a constitutional amendment intended to restore voting rights to ex-felons, which has left hundreds of thousands of potential voters — many of them minority voters expected to largely favor Democrats — unable to participate in the November election.
But regardless of the reasons, Republicans may be closer than they’ve ever been to parity with Democrats. The Florida Division of Elections website, which lists partisan voter registration only as far back as 1972, shows Republicans previously coming no closer than 263,000 voters of the Democratic Party in 2018 and, prior to that, 276,000 in 2006.
“I don’t think you’ll meet any Democrat out there who’ll say this registration number is a good thing,” said Scott Kosanovich, a Democratic strategist who led Bloomberg’s short-lived presidential campaign in Florida.
But Kosanovich said there are positive signs that Democrats won’t look back in regret after the election when it comes to voter turnout, an area where Republicans have outperformed Democrats in recent, narrow victories. This year, voters on the left are voting early at an unprecedented rate, even if the registration numbers show they don’t outnumber Republicans to the extent they did in the past.
Democrats have rushed to vote by mail early this year, casting 1,043,514 vote-by-mail ballots as of Thursday morning. Republicans had sent in 623,395 mail ballots. Those numbers are in part a reflection of Democrats’ change in strategy during the early days of the pandemic, when they were still investing in registering voters — especially those who have been less likely to vote at all — to cast ballots by mail.
Kevin Cate, a Florida Democratic operative and veteran media consultant, said in an interview Thursday that “before 2020, Democrats had to look at the voter registration gap as our holy grail.” Now, he said, Democrats have a massive early vote advantage and still have more registered voters than Republicans amid polling that shows Biden ahead of Trump in Florida.
“The reality is Democrats have amassed an overwhelming vote by mail advantage, and turned out in historic numbers for the primary election in August,” said Jackie McGuinness, a spokeswoman for Biden’s campaign in Florida. “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.”
Veteran Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who led Obama’s 2008 Florida campaign, also noted on Twitter that much of the Republican Party’s gains have been with white voters, who remain a majority voting bloc in Florida but are shrinking every year in size as the state’s minority population grows. Black and Latino voters, meanwhile, are registering without party affiliation — the fastest growing voting bloc in recent years — but still tend to vote Democratic.
“There have definitely been Republican gains,” Schale, the CEO of the pro-Biden Unite the Country Super PAC, said in an interview. “At the same time, what we do know is that the state is getting more diverse. My party does better with voters of color.”
Republicans say they believe Democrats are largely just transitioning in-person voters to ones that vote by mail, and aren’t increasing Biden’s base in any material way. With early voting centers set to open Monday, the GOP is preparing for Republican voters to more or less match Democrats, vote for vote, ahead of a likely Republican-heavy Election Day turnout.
In a podcast published this week by political consultant and former Tampa Bay Times reporter Adam Smith, pollster and GOP consultant Ryan Tyson said the election reminds him of Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign — when Republicans spent gobs of money on TV and Democrats hustled on the ground and registered voters.
Obama won that election thanks in part to Democrats having 536,000 more registered voters than Republicans that year. Now, Tyson said that lead for Democrats is as small as it’s ever been.
“That’s historically close,” he said of the 134,000-voter gap. “It’s never been that close in the history of the state.”
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