MIAMI -- Florida Democrats have a problem: There was supposed to be more of them by now.
Following narrow losses in 2018 races for Florida governor and U.S. Senate, Democrats emerged from the midterms with a new resolve to register more voters in the nation's largest swing state as a path to victory in 2020. Former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, fresh off a stinging 34,000-vote loss, vowed to "flip Florida blue" by registering or "re-engaging" 1 million voters, including 200,000 new Democrats added by the Florida Democratic Party.
But those initiatives fell well short of their goals. And with seven weeks until mail ballots go out in the Nov. 3 election between presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, Florida Republicans are closer to parity in voter registration than they've been in decades -- a dynamic that may portend yet another hard-fought, narrowly decided presidential election.
"We won the voter registration war," Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters said last week.
Voter registration -- the grunt work of politics -- sets the foundation for campaign season. For Florida Democrats, who historically have had a harder time turning out their voters than Republicans, it's even more crucial.
When former President Barack Obama first won Florida in 2008, he entered the final months of the campaign with an advantage of more than 500,000 registered Democratic voters. That lead has steadily dwindled, dropping to about 259,000 in 2016, when Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Florida by 112,000 votes.
New data posted online Wednesday by the Florida Division of Elections showed that, as of July 20, when books closed on eligible voters for the upcoming Aug. 18 primary, Democrats led Republicans in the state by 240,423 people -- about 5,000 fewer than at the same point in 2018.
There are also now 3,622,236 voters registered without party affiliation, an increase of more than 700,000 independents since the summer of 2016. Another wild card: requests for mail ballots have nearly doubled over the last four years to 4.1 million, with most of that growth on the Democratic side.
"It's all going to come down to who gets out the vote. That's the bottom line," said Millie Raphael, the co-founder of Bring it Home Florida, a nonprofit organization involved in Gillum's effort. "We've always been a state that goes to the margins, and that's exactly where we are today."
Democrats have hoped to avoid another nail-biter, and only months ago said they were on track to meet their goals. In late February state party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo called reporters to a drab union hall next to Miami International Airport to crow about registering Florida's 5 millionth Democrat.