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Florida Republican Party turns turnout into art

Almost everything favors Democrats this year. But don't start counting those votes quite yet.

By ADAM C. SMITH and ASJYLYN LODER
Published October 27, 2006


You can understand the optimism among Florida Democrats heading into Election Day. They see an unpopular president and war, three highly vulnerable Republican congressional seats, and the strongest Democratic ticket statewide in years.

But wait.

What most Florida Democrats don't see is the mighty Florida GOP machine revving its turbines. Nowhere in the country are Republicans better at the nuts and bolts of winning elections than Florida, a state where the GOP will spend at least five times as much as Democrats on voter turnout.

"Hi, this is Charlie Crist. Recently, you should have received your vote-by-mail ballot. And I'm calling to personally ask you to vote," says one of several recorded messages to voters who requested absentee ballots.

Democrats are doing the same, but on a much smaller scale. By some estimates the GOP's absentee-ballot program alone will ensure that Republicans wake up on Election Day with a 300,000-vote advantage over Democrats.

That's huge in an election where roughly 5.5-million votes will be cast, and it's testament to the election-winning apparatus Florida Republicans have perfected since the early 1990s.

"We built this thing going back for years and every year it just gets bigger," said former state Republican Party executive director David Johnson. "It's become part of the fabric of our campaigns, and now we just pull the machine out of the garage, oil it up, and turn it on."

After years of leaving voter mobilization to their national party and outside groups, Florida Democrats are touting their most organized effort ever. The state party has given candidates and local parties access to its new and constantly updated voter database.

Using census, voter and other data, the Democrats are targeting sympathetic Hispanics, African-Americans and independents who need extra prodding to vote in off-year elections.

"Obviously, we don't have all the bells and whistles that the Republicans have invested in for years, but we're light years ahead of where we were," said Democratic executive director Luis Navarro, a veteran organizer Sen. Bill Nelson recruited to Florida to build a party infrastructure for turning out voters.

Starting from scratch

But Democrats are starting from scratch to create what Republicans have been fine-tuning for years. The Republican National Committee's "Voter Vault," loaded with financial, personal and demographic data on individuals, allows Florida Republicans to precisely target voters with specialized appeals.

What's more, Republican Senate nominee Katherine Harris, a favorite demon of Democrats for her role in the 2000 presidential campaign, is lagging so far behind in polls she's not nearly the energizer Democrats hoped.

And Republicans have a huge financial advantage.

Under federal campaign finance rules, virtually all statewide get-out-the vote efforts must be funded through federal accounts that accept no unlimited "soft money" donations. Since January, the Florida GOP has spent more than $8-million on such efforts, compared to $1.6-million for Democrats.

The fruits of that fundraising prowess? Among other things, millions of absentee ballot applications sent to Republicans statewide. Those are followed up by live and recorded calls often targeted to specific voters, and in many cases personal visits from canvassers equipped with precisely targeted pitches.

In Hernando County, the Republicans meet each weekend, said Ana Trinque, chairwoman of the Republican Executive Committee. The GOP prints lists from its Voter Vault software.

Volunteers know average household income, whether it's in a competitive precinct, whether the voter votes in party primaries. When a voter responds, that's plugged back into the Voter Vault. The next time party volunteers call, they know if the voter worried more about Iraq or immigration, terrorism or the economy.

Compare that to the Hernando County Democrats. They have a mobile campaign headquarters: Jay Rowden's white Ford F-150. Rowden packs signs in the back, sticks magnetic signs to the side, and drives around with a laptop and his Bluetooth ear piece attached. The party has spent $3,000 on automated phone calls, but can't muster the door-to-door volunteers, Rowden said.

"I'm a one-man band," he said.

More GOP money

While the Democrats are spending their limited resources on relatively few targeted voters, the Florida GOP has so much money even hard-core Democrats are receiving fliers touting Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist's support for gun rights.

"They've got a better voter file, they've got a better ground game in voter turnout and absentee ballots than probably any other state," said Republican strategist Tommy Hopper, who has run Republican campaigns across the country. "If we win three Florida congressional races by two or three points, that will probably be the reason we won."

The 'Voter Vault'

The Republican voter turnout machine started taking shape when Democrats still controlled Tallahassee. In the early 1990s, former state GOP chairman Tom Slade was so impressed with a plan by an Escambia County Republican activist and former NASA engineer to compile voter information that Slade started investing heavily in building an extensive database. That system has improved exponentially with the "Voter Vault."

After the virtually tied 2000 election in Florida, Republicans in the state and nationally concentrated on building up their door-to-door voter turnout operation and created the "72-hour program" to mobilize voters in the final days of the campaign. That helped Jeb Bush trounce Bill McBride by 13 percentage points in 2002.

In 2004, Democrats flooding early voting sites helped mitigate the GOP advantage in absentee ballots. But the superior Election Day turnout operation helped President Bush win Florida by nearly 400,000 votes. This year, unlike 2002 and 2004, Florida Democrats don't have millions of dollars from the national party and outside groups to bolster their get-out-the-vote effort.

What they do have is the hope that Republican gubernatorial candidate Crist's moderate stances on social issues will leave many evangelical voters at home, making it the worst climate for Republicans in years.

"There are a lot of people who will be driven to the polls by the Republican machine who are not necessarily going to vote the way the Republicans think they're going to vote," said Kirk Wagar, a Miami lawyer and top Democratic fundraiser.

Perhaps, but even many Democratic strategists acknowledge the most reliable polls can be off-base because of the superior Republican turnout operation. In the September primary, nearly 130,000 more Republicans voted than Democrats.

"I have said from the start we have to go in with a two- or three-point lead to make up for their turnout advantage," said Jeff Garcia, campaign manager for Democratic attorney general candidate Walter "Skip" Campbell, who is in a tight race with Republican Bill McCollum.

Across Florida, anxious Republican campaign strategists are breathing easier as they receive reports on how many Republicans and Democrats already have voted by absentee ballot.

Said Republican consultant Todd Harris, who is working on Joe Negron's campaign to succeed Mark Foley in Congress: "There are going to be a lot of Republicans in tight races in Florida who get carried across the finish line because of decisions that were made years ago about building the machine."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.