Voter turnout for the April 23 runoff in Tampa municipal races is tracking 4 percent higher than the March 5 election.
According to the most recent vote-by-mail ballot rate of return, voter turnout in the March 5 municipal election was just 21 percent — one point lower than the 2011 election in which Bob Buckhorn made the runoff against Rose Ferlita. Turnout for their runoff stayed about the same.
Political consultants this year thought turnout might drop even lower in the runoff because competition in the four races on the ballot, including for Mayor, is low.
But that doesn’t appear to be the case. As of Monday, nearly 16,000 voters had already returned a ballot. That’s almost 28 percent of all who requested one and puts overall voter turnout so far at 7 percent.
At the same point after mail ballots went to voters for the March 5 election, just 6,000 voters had cast a vote accounting for 10.5 percent of all who had requested one and representing only 3 percent overall turnout.
For the most part, all of the races on the ballot in the upcoming election have a clear front-runner.
Jane Castor only narrowly missed winning her election outright last month with 48 percent of the vote in a seven-way race. David Straz made the runoff with just 15 percent, putting him at a distinct disadvantage despite waging a heavily funded race.
The story is similar for three City Council contests on the runoff ballot. In District 1, Joe Citro finished first with 31 percent of the vote. His runoff opponent, Walter Smith II, came in second 12 points behind him.
The vote disparity in District 3 is even more significant. Former Tampa City Council member John Dingfelder captured 49 percent of the vote while the second place finisher, Stephen Lytle, brought in just 20 percent.
District 5, which includes downtown and East Tampa, was closer. Jeffrey Rhodes led that race with a two-point margin over Orlando Gudes. But Gudes has raised nearly triple his opponent, making a single-member, down-ballot race the only obviously competitive one on this ballot.
The turnout trends so far based on vote-by-mail returns suggests Castor’s get out the vote strategy might be working. The campaign has been canvassing neighborhoods and focusing efforts on running a positive campaign and getting out the vote.
It was widely accepted that a Castor victory was all but guaranteed as long as she got her supporters to the polls and captured even just a sliver of some of the votes from opponents who didn’t make the runoff. That was made all the more doable when the third and fourth place finishers in the race, Harry Cohen and Dick Greco, both endorsed her.
It also suggests that Straz’s strategy might not be working.
While Castor has been running a positive campaign based on her experience and issues facing the city, Straz has been waging a negative campaign, criticizing Castor for her leadership as Tampa’s first female police chief, accusing her of double-dipping and arguing that running a police department is not the appropriate resume for being mayor.
Of course, conventional political wisdom and voting trends have proved to be unreliable in recent years. Most recently, Andrew Gillum bunked polls showing he had an advantage against now Gov. Ron DeSantis last year. And of course, Donald Trump’s victory was counter to just about every poll nationwide showing Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in for the presidency.
Still, if voter turnout improves over last month, it’s most likely better for Castor than it is for Straz and, whoever voters support, increased voter engagement is an overall win for democracy.
The numbers will become more apparent as more voters return, or don’t return, mail ballots and when early voting begins April 14.