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217,400 Floridians have already voted; Democrats holding their own with absentee ballots

While it's only a fraction of the 12 million or so total registered voters*, the more than 217,000 absentee ballots already cast in Florida this week are a leading indicator of just how tight this presidential race is -- and how nervous Republicans might be.

Normally, Republicans clean the Democrats' clocks when it comes to voting by mail. In 2008, the lead was by double digits.

No more. At least as of now.

Republicans have a 4 percentage point lead over Democrats when it comes to voting their absentee ballots right now (about 96,000 to about 88,000 of the 217,400). If that trend holds, it could prove problematic when early in-person voting starts Oct. 27. Democrats typically dominate early voting, and completely wiped out a major Republican absentee-vote lead in 2008.

About 2 million voters have requested absentee ballots in Florida (42 percent Republican, 39 percent Democrat). So there's a lot more voting to do.

What's not clear, however, is how many of these Democratic absentee voters comprised the 2008 early in-person voters. That is, how many of these voters are voting early by absentee ballot before early voting in person begins? And, when early voting comes along, will Democrats have a small lead there relative to four years ago?

Of course, it's also not clear exactly for whom the ballots were cast (not every Democrat votes Democrat; not every Republican votes Republican).

But the fact that so many Democrats are voting by absentee is a strong sign that their ground game is formidable this election. So is the number of newly registered voters by the Democrats: 322,000. The Republicans signed up just 47,000. The 275,000 voter edge means a lot in a close election.

Bottom line: The Obama campaign has had four years to organize. And it's showing.

Republicans have long been organized in Florida. Their still-impressive absentee-ballot program is a sign of that. Consider: in 2008, when they were outnumbered by 637,000 registered voters, Republicans still won in absentee-ballot voting.

Right now, their candidate is also winning in the polls.

The real October surprise this election was President Obama's bad debate performance, which cost him an inside-the-error margin lead in Florida. He trails Mitt Romney by 7 points in the latest Miami Herald poll of likely voters.