About a third of the state’s voters cast their ballots before the polls even opened Tuesday, many of them weighing in before the Republican presidential race ignited into a vicious cycle of attacks on television, in mailers and on automated phone calls.
In some counties, including Hillsborough, absentee voting was substantially higher than it was in the last GOP presidential primary, suggesting Mitt Romney’s aggressive outreach may have worked to give him a significant edge. By early afternoon, the county, which includes Tampa, had recorded 11,157 absentee ballots, 60% more than in 2008.
Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, said the early votes are likely good news for Romney, whose campaign had the television airwaves to itself for many days and had a highly organized effort to contact absentee voters. “It’s become a very common strategy, but you do have to have the money to hire the people to do it,” she said.
State elections officials said 361,995 Republicans have voted absentee so far and another 293,760 voted early at polls, which were open in county elections offices, city halls and libraries in most counties from 10 days before the election until Saturday. Four years ago, nearly 2 million Republicans voted, choosing Arizona Sen. John McCain over Romney.
State officials said it was difficult to say what those numbers mean for election day voting. “It’s always tough to predict turnout because you never now whether people’s enthusiasm will change day to day,” said Chris Cate, a spokesman for Florida’s secretary of state.
McManus said the numbers show that many voters tuned out the presidential campaign, which devolved into an exchange of bitter hot-button accusations between Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker.
“People just had their minds made up and they just wanted to be done with it,” she said, suggesting that they hung up on robocalls and tossed out mailers. “They’ve come to closure early because of the saturation because of the ads and the debates.”
One pollster, American Research Group, released a survey of 600 likely Republican voters conducted Sunday and Monday that found more than a third had already voted and tilted heavily toward Romney, who garnered 51% to Gingrich’s 29%. Voters planning to cast ballots on election day split, 39% for Romney to 32% for Gingrich, within the margin of error.