A sharp increase in the number of Floridians casting absentee ballots is changing the ways of winning political campaigns.
A record 1.5 million absentee ballots are in circulation for the current election, and campaign operatives are tracking them like bloodhounds.
"Candidates (and staffers) go daily to supervisor of elections offices. They know who has absentee ballots. They know when those ballots are returned," says Daniel Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida.
Absentee ballots, along with early voting, have accelerated and front-loaded the campaign calendar in unprecedented ways. Five weeks before Election Day, more than 25,000 Floridians had already cast ballots.
In the 2008 general election, 54 percent of Florida voters cast their vote before Election Day. The percentage of early deciders could increase this year. Early voting begins Monday, Oct. 18.
With so many people making decisions so far in advance, campaigns are hitting the airwaves earlier and more intensively. Hardball TV spots began rolling out almost daily, weeks before the election, and eleventh-hour surprises, a staple of old-style campaigning, are all but obsolete.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott stole the march on early favorite Bill McCollum by ramping up a sophisticated early-voting machine. Scott had both the financial resources and the organization to pull it off.
Since Scott's insurgent victory, the Republican Party of Florida found that more than 200,000 voters who hadn't voted in any of the previous four primary elections cast either absentee or early ballots in this year's primary.
Kay Clem, supervisor of elections in Indian River County and former president of the state association of election supervisors, said she and her colleagues like the migration toward absentee voting.
"We love absentee ballots. We're thrilled to get work done before Election Day," Clem said. Early ballot counting begins the Saturday before Election Day, though offices will accept absentee ballots as late as 7 p.m. on Election Day.
Smith said the mechanics of tapping the growing legion of so-called "convenience" votersinvolve high levels of data retrieval and precision marketing on the part of candidates.
"(Campaigns) target direct mail and phone calls, and tailor those communications very specifically," Smith said.
Smith added that the GOP has outpaced Democrats on absentee ballots while Democrats tend to draw higher numbers at early-voting polling places.
Both can be effective electoral tools, though Smith notes that absentee ballots pose more complications.
"There are more points to trip up in absentee voting -- having to make sure all the boxes are checked and that the signatures match perfectly," he said.
As evidence of increasingly sophisticated voter tracking, Jerry Dorchuck, chairman and CEO of P.M.I. Inc., a Marianna-based campaign firm that does work for both parties, said, "More and more clients are doing what we call 'chase' calls.
"When a candidate gets a list of voters who have requested absentee ballots, we do either a live call or robo call reminding voters to be sure and vote absentee in order to avoid the Election Day wait," Dorchuck explains.
"In the past, we have always had chase calls for more local races, but we are seeing this on a statewide basis now.
"Our absentee chase calls have never been higher. It shows how focused both parties are on winning seats," Dorchuck said.
Smith said campaigns can exploit the absentee-ballot list to their advantage.
"They know these people intend to vote, and they can cross them off the list (once they've voted)," Smith said.
The effort and expense of tracking absentee balloters doesn't guarantee success come Election Day, however.
Smith notes that Democratic Senate candidate Jeff Greene's campaign used its databank to "target Jewish voters with different messages than non-Jewish voters."
But the billionaire's big-spending operation was all for naught. U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek won the primary handily.
Looking ahead, Clem predicted that the surge in absentee balloting may taper off. A 2008 state law that required supervisors of elections to provide absentee voters with absentee ballots in the following two general elections was repealed by the 2010 Legislature.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or (772) 801-5341.