Election Day in Florida's 13th Congressional District isn't for another 11 days. But voters have already been casting thousands of absentee ballots in the closely-watched bellwether special election to replace the late Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young for weeks.
So far, Republicans have cast slightly more votes than Democrats. That doesn't bode well for Republican nominee David Jolly.
You read that right. Republicans account for 42 percent of the ballots returned through Thursday, while Democrats account for 40 percent of the ballots cast. While that may seem at first blush like good news for Jolly, the reality is that it falls short of the mark Republicans were hoping to hit, for a few reasons.
GOP strategists have been hopeful that turnout would favor the GOP in a big way in this race. There's no presidential election at the top of the ticket, and problems with Obamacare have fired up the Republican base. In short, Republicans were hoping to build up a wider advantage than two points via absentee balloting, which is a very popular option in the district. (Two points is roughly on par with the GOP's registration advantage in the district.)
As Adam Smith noted in the Tampa Bay Times earlier this month, Republicans have outpaced Democrats in absentee balloting during the past couple of cycles by wider margins. In 2012, Republican voters outpaced Democrats by six points in absentee voting. (President Obama still won the district narrowly.) In 2010, as Smith noted, the GOP absentee advantage was 11 percent.
But wait, you say. We don't know how any of thee voters are actually voting. That's true. We don't know how many Republicans are voting for Democratic nominee Alex Sink and how many Democrats are voting for Jolly.
But herein lies another point of concern for Republicans. As Smith also noted, what the limited polling in the race has shown is that Sink is better at peeling off Republican voters than Jolly is at peeling off Democratic voters.
Voters have been casting ballots since late January, which is why Sink's fast fundraising start and lack of a primary opponent was so crucial. While Jolly was coming out of a reasonably competitive primary, Sink had stockpiled a massive sum of cash she was ready to quickly deploy as Jolly was still trying to get his feet set for the general election and outside groups were just beginning to rally to his side.
Sink has continued to raise big money -- her campaign said Thursday it brought in $1.3 million since the beginning of the year. Jolly has not announced his latest fundraising numbers yet.
None of this is to say Jolly has no shot. Most other indications are that this is a very close race. Republican and Democratic outside groups continue to spend money at near record clips -- and that's helped Jolly stay afloat even as he' been outraised by Sink.
As we have outlined in this space before, there's a simple reason for the widespread interest in this special election: The purple district is a good testing ground for the broader messages both sides are hoping to deploy in the November midterms. And as of today, both sides still believe they can win.
In a close race, everything matters. And when it comes to absentee ballots -- which have mattered a lot in this district in the past -- the advantage appears to be with Sink.