The political world is glued to South Carolina this morning as voting gets underway in the first-in-the-South primary, where polls suggest Newt Gingrich could run away with the election. A new American Research Group poll of likely South Carolina voters shows Gingrich winning 40-26 over Mitt Romney.
But it could be a different story in Florida, where Republicans have been casting early votes by mail all month. Early voting at special precincts is now underway statewide as well. Only one campaign, Romney's, has made a concerted effort to target those voters.
So far, 185,435 absentee ballots have been cast and 11,836 early votes have been cast at precincts for a total of 197,271, according to Brian Hughes, Republican Party of Florida spokesman.
There's more to come. In all, 473, 573 absentee ballots have been requested in Florida, meaning only 39 percent of them have been cast. Hughes said that, in 2008 (a much more contested, evenly matched election overall), Republicans cast about 301,000 ballots before Election Day.
So much for Republicans not being enthused about voting.
Officially, Election Day in Florida is Jan. 31, and only the 4 million registered Republicans can vote in Florida's closed primary -- unlike the other early-vote states.
Romney's campaign has probably spent upward of $1 million so far targeting Florida Republicans. Some have received five mail pieces asking them to cast early votes, or just vote for Romney, who's covering the state with about $2.5 million in TV ads that are running during shows like 'Jeopardy" (not "Wheel of Fortune," though). The pro-Romney SuperPac has also mailed voters and advertised on TV, savaging Gingrich, who has sent only 1 statewide mailpiece and is advertising only on radio right now with small buys.
Chances are, Romney's getting a big share of these votes because of the effort. Assuming that's the case, Gingrich will have to find a way to make up the deficit with a so-called "ground game," which he largely lacks. His Florida campaign co-chairman, Bill McCollum, knows all about the dangers of letter your opponent run up the score by a strong absentee-ballot program. In 2010, Gov. Rick Scott built up an almost insurmountable lead before Election Day.
All of this is not a guarantee that Gingrich will lose, either. In 2009, a guy named Marco Rubio was being outraised, outspent and out-organized by then Gov. Charlie Crist in the U.S. Senate race. We call him Senator Rubio today. This election year is different because of the debates that have transformed Gingrich from a curiousity candidate into a frontrunner. There are two more debates in Florida, on Monday and Thursday. That, along with the buzz of a South Carolina win (if he gets one) could cancel out a lot of Romney's edge going forward.
But there's nothing Gingrich can do about the ballots already being cast.