By Steve Bousquet
Powered by a historic number of early voters, many in Democratic strongholds, Florida's pre-election turnout hit a record 6.4 million Monday, more than any other state and equal to half of the state's nearly 13 million voters.
Democrats had cast nearly 2.6 million early ballots, the state reported, and Republicans had cast nearly 2.5 million for a slim Democratic advantage of about 88,000 ballots -- roughly half of the Democrats' pre-election advantage in Florida in 2012.
Both parties closely track the turnout of partisans to measure how well they're turning out core supporters. On Florida's final day of early voting Sunday, turnout reached an unprecedented level.
Some of the biggest crowds were in Miami-Dade and Broward, traditional twin pillars of Democratic strength, where turnout often trails the rest of the state.
But that was only part of the Florida turnout story.
So far, 36 percent of Hispanics who have voted did not vote in the 2012 election, according to a review of data by University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith.
At the same time, independents and minor-party voters have cast another 1.4 million wild card ballots, also a record in the nation's biggest battleground state, must-win territory for Donald Trump if he is to defeat Hillary Clinton on Tuesday.
Miami-Dade's combined early and mail balloting is 80 percent above 2012.
Florida's unprecedented early turnout appears to benefit Clinton, but Trump has all of Tuesday to catch up. On Election Day in 2012, more Florida Republicans voted than Democrats.
"The enthusiasm of our supporters is unprecedented," said Trump's chief Florida strategist, Susie Wiles. "We are pleased to see our campaign outperforming 2012's early voting results by over 100,000 votes."
But it's a clear sign of trouble for Trump that voters barnstormed the polls in such high numbers in Miami-Dade. It's the state's most populous county and the only one Trump lost in the presidential primary last March, when hometown favorite Sen. Marco Rubio was still a candidate for the White House.
Miami-Dade's combined early and mail balloting is 80 percent above 2012, and state figures show that 120,000 more Democrats than Republicans have voted there.
Miami-Dade's neighbor to the north, Broward, is also voting in bigger numbers than usual. The two South Florida counties typically lag behind the rest of the state in voter turnout, but as of Monday Miami-Dade's turnout was 55 percent and Broward's was 52 percent compared to a statewide turnout of 49.9 percent
"The numbers speak for themselves," wrote Democratic strategist Steve Schale, a veteran of two Florida presidential campaigns, in his daily online analysis. "That just doesn't happen."
In fact, at Trump's first rally of the day Monday at the fairgrounds in Sarasota, some supporters were not buying it.
"It's all a lie," said John Gattone, 62, when told that official reports showed that Democrats had cast more early ballots. "Like Trump says, it's a corrupt system. It's got to be straightened out."
Another Trump supporter at the Sarasota rally, Dave Stigman, 46, of Venice, acknowledged that Democrats had a strong "ground game" to get as many voters to the polls as possible.
"I know the odds are against him, and the polls show that," Stigman said. "But there are a lot of sleeper cells out there for him. I've never seen a phenomenon like this."
Tampa Bay's early turnout numbers were smaller.
The combined early and vote-by-mail turnouts as of Monday were 48.2 percent in Pinellas and 49.2 percent in Hillsborough.
UF's Smith said 4.2 million votes had been cast by white voters, up from 3.3 million in the run-up to the 2012 presidential contest and a boost for Trump, based on many polls showing him with a wide lead over Clinton among whites.
The number of Hispanics voting early stood at 976,000 Monday, nearly twice as high as 2012, Smith posted on his blog, electionsmith.com. The number of African-Americans voting before Election Day has grown from about 764,000 in 2012 to more than 834,000 this year.
Floridians began voting in this election more than a month ago, when the first wave of ballots went out in the mail.
Mail ballots will continue to be accepted by county elections offices through 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
The U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division said it will deploy 500 people to 28 states, including Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and three other Florida counties, to ensure that poll workers and counties obey federal voting rights laws.
The federal government said it will send official observers to Palm Beach, Orange and Lee counties, and it advertised a toll-free number for complaints: 800-253-3931.
This is the first presidential election since a 2013 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which struck down much of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, including protections required because of past voting rights violations in Florida counties.
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei and Tampa Bay Times staff writers Steve Contorno and Alex Leary contributed to this report.
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