Spurred on by a statewide pocketbook issue and two hotly contested presidential races, Florida voters went to the polls Tuesday in record numbers, surprising many officials and analysts.
Total ballots cast exceeded 4.1 million — about 40 percent of the total number of registered voters in the state. That’s just 700,000 fewer votes than the total number cast in the high-profile 2006 governor’s race, a statewide battle usually of more interest to voters than a presidential primary.
The figures suggest Floridians were more tuned in to the primaries and the property-tax-amendment issue than they may have been given credit for. The turnout was not the highest in terms of percentages, but its raw numbers were impressive. More people voted in Florida than the combined total of the early-state primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. The Florida total, in fact, was more than twice the population of New Hampshire.
Almost 53 percent of Republicans cast a ballot in the GOP primary won by John McCain, and almost half of all registered Democrats participated in the race won by Hillary Clinton.
About 1.7 million Democrats came out despite the fact that their candidates treated Florida as a political black hole.
After being pressured by Democratic officials in states with early primaries — notably Iowa and New Hampshire — the candidates agreed to do no campaigning in Florida.
They came here only to raise money at private functions.
The snub angered many voters and state Democratic officials, who see an opportunity for the party to capture the White House in 2008.
University of South Florida political analyst Susan MacManus said she saw and heard the frustration while making the rounds on the speaking circuit. She remembers addressing a group on Anna Maria Island this election season and finding “three to four times” as many people in attendance.
“There was intense interest,” MacManus said. “One speaker after another talked about rallying your neighbors, getting them out to vote.”
MacManus said local Democratic groups across the state did a “massive amount of work” to get people out to vote.
“They were angry about the [candidates’] boycott,” she said. “They wanted to send a message.”
The 2008 turnout among Democrats was almost 2 1/2 times greater than in the Democratic presidential primary of four years ago.
Orange County Democratic Chairman Bill Robinson said local party officials have been urging members for months to vote regardless of the candidates’ absence. One big reason, Robinson said, was so that the party and state would have some influence when there’s a push to change the primary system. That could come as early as 2012.
“Who’s going to listen to us complain about the broken primary system if we don’t participate?” said Robinson, an Orlando lawyer. “We needed to meet our obligation by showing up.”
About 1.9 million Republicans voted, or almost three times the number who turned out for the 2000 GOP presidential primary. The percentage of Republicans voting was, like the Democrats, about 2 1/2 times greater than in the 2000 race.
The difference is that GOP voters actually got to see their candidates. In fact, it was impossible to miss some of them.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made Florida their priority with frequent visits and a heavy presence on television and radio. McCain and Mike Huckabee swept in after the South Carolina primary, though Huckabee lacked the money and organization to compete here effectively.
With no Democrats on the ground, Republicans dominated political news in Florida. Still, the party’s former executive director was surprised participation cracked 50 percent.
“We’d talked about it earlier in the week, and most people were thinking of a ceiling of about 40 percent,” said political consultant David Johnson. “We were so wrong.”
Johnson said GOP participation spiked, in part, because of the tight race and rhetorical sparring between McCain and Romney. Polls showed the men in a virtual dead heat, and in the final days of the campaign, each ramped up the stakes by portraying the other as a liberal.
Meanwhile, voters of all stripes were looking at the property-tax amendment championed by Gov. Charlie Crist. Well-organized groups supported and opposed it, and the issue received extensive news coverage. More than 4.1 million people voted on the issue, including more than 450,000 people not affiliated with either major party. The amendment passed 64 percent to 36 percent.
Johnson is convinced that the tax question may have brought out voters who, party members or not, would have otherwise sat the election out.
“You had sort of this perfect storm of contested presidential races and a pocketbook amendment all coming together,” he said. “It made for great turnout.”