South Florida Democratic candidates who had no reason to expect victory are preparing to be sworn in to office now thanks to the votes of people whom the pollsters largely ignored: unlikely voters.
One election post-mortem from the liberal nonprofit America Votes suggests unlikely voters cast 34 percent of the early and mail-in absentee votes during this election, propelling liberal Democrats such as Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami and State Senator Maria Sachs of Boca Raton unexpectedly to the winners' circle.
Novice candidate Rodriguez won 53.7 percent of the vote to beat formidable political family member Alex Diaz de la Portilla to the District 112 state house seat. Sachs defeated tough Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff with 52.8 percent in a redrawn district that created the Senate's only incumbent-on-incumbent match-up.
An unlikely voter, says America Votes Florida director Josh Geise, is one who scores below 80 on a zero-to-100 scale of voting history, age, ethnicity, neighborhood and other factors that measure the propensity for voting. The likely voter model in use by several polling organizations uses only three elements: voting history, the voter's self-described intention to vote and his or her enthusiasm for the campaign.
The task for Democratic ground-gamers was to goad the unlikelys out of their torpor and campaigners say Republican legislators and Gov. Rick Scott made that easy with the voting law they passed in 2011.
"The (voter roll) purges, the crackdown on early voting -- all those things that were an attempt to make those voters even less likely to vote -- those things really ticked people off," says Gihan Perera, who runs the political nonprofit Florida New Majority. FNM staff and volunteers made calls and knocked on doors for Rodriguez, Sachs and other Democrats around the state.
"People don't like to be erased. Even if it was something they weren't going to do, they don't want the right to do it taken away," Perera said.
FNM also contributed manpower and data to winning Democratic Senate candidates Dwight Bullard of Miami and Darren Soto of Orlando.
America Votes was unable to say whether the turnout of unlikely voters was unusual. Geise said there isn't enough data from previous elections to run the statistical model it uses to separate likelys from unlikelys.
Prominent among the cohort of the unlikely were Latin voters under 50, who were particular targets of FNM's campaign. In Rodriguez's District 112, which comprises parts of Little Havana, Coconut Grove, Coral Gables and Key Biscayne, they had wearied of traditional Miami politics and dropped out, according to Perera. He thinks getting them re-engaged made Rodriguez' win one of the most important victories of the campaign.
Rodriguez is headed for Tallahassee as a junior member of the out-of-power party. But he thinks all of those votes from the formerly jaded, apathetic and unlikely will make a difference in the capital.
"I think the character of the Legislature is not going to resemble the last two years," Rodriguez said. "I think there's going to be a lot of pushback on the governor than in the last two years."