In two of the most competitive states in the U.S. presidential race -- Iowa and Nevada -- Democrats are building a significant advantage in early voting.
Who has the edge is more muddled in the bigger swing states of Ohio and Florida, while Republicans have a narrow lead in Colorado. Early, in-person voting started in Florida over the weekend, and dozens of Democrats in Tallahassee marched five blocks from a church to an early-voting site yesterday, chanting “Vote early.”
Almost 15 million people have already cast ballots nationwide, according to the United States Elections Project at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Both parties are spinning their versions of what the turnout means as they seek to project momentum in a contest where more than a third of the nation’s vote probably will be cast before Election Day, Nov. 6.
“The data are confirming what we are seeing in the polling, which is that these state races are going to be narrower than in 2008,” said Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason who studies early voting.
In Iowa, more than 470,000 people had cast ballots through Oct. 27, according to the Iowa secretary of state’s office. If as many people vote this year as did in 2008, that would represent 30 percent of the total vote. Registered Democrats have cast 44.6 percent of the ballots so far, compared with 32 percent by Republicans and 23.3 percent by independents.
Polls Versus Voting
“The main thing is not to look at the polling but to look at the voting,” David Axelrod, a senior campaign strategist for President Barack Obama, said yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “We are mounting up a very, very large lead in Iowa based on where those early votes are coming from.”
By the end of this week, McDonald said the proportion of early voting in Iowa, as compared with 2008’s total vote, could grow to 45 percent. If current trends for ballots requested and returned remain unchanged through this week, he said, Obama’s advantage could become almost insurmountable for Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
“That’s got to be troubling for Romney,” McDonald said. “Election Day would have to be a Republican parade for Romney to win the state.”
In Colorado, Florida, Iowa and North Carolina, Obama banked so many early votes in 2008 that he won those states even though he ran behind in each in votes cast on Election Day itself, according to voting data compiled by the Associated Press.
Thus far in Nevada, where an even larger proportion of the vote has been cast than in Iowa when compared with the 2008 vote, Democrats have accounted for 45 percent, according to an update today from the Nevada secretary of state’s office. Republicans represent 37 percent and independents 18 percent.
Republicans have a slim edge in Colorado’s early voting, according to data released today by the secretary of state’s office there. Of the vote turned in so far, 38 percent is from registered Republicans, while Democrats represent 36 percent and independents 24.5 percent.
Early, in-person voting started in Colorado on Oct. 22, a week after absentee voting. About a third of the total 2008 vote has now been cast.
Although Hurricane Sandy’s path toward the East Coast already has altered the final days of candidate travel in the presidential race, it should have minimal impact on early voting.
Other than Florida and North Carolina, which aren’t directly in the storm’s path, the swing states with the greatest tradition and activity for early voting aren’t along the East Coast.
In Virginia, Governor Bob McDonnell said 15 to 20 of the state’s local registrars’ offices have closed so far due to the storm, preventing some voters from casting absentee ballots. To make up for lost hours, McDonnell told reporters he is asking local officials to offer extended hours after the storm passes.
Among swing states with early voting and party-affiliation voter registration, Democrats have their biggest advantage in North Carolina, where the party held its national convention and people can register and vote in one stop at various locations. The party has recorded 48.3 percent of the early vote, compared with 31.9 percent for Republicans and 19.9 percent for independents, according to the elections project’s data.
Democrats also held a large early-vote lead in 2008, with Obama, 51, ultimately winning North Carolina by fewer than 14,000 votes that year. This year, the Republican National Committee says its party has added almost 60,000 early votes to what it had accrued at the same time four years ago, boosting Romney, 65.
The popularity of early voting is growing nationally, and Republicans and Democrats alike are seeing an increase from four years ago. Both parties are working to bank as many votes as possible so they can focus on late-deciders and others in the final week. Republicans say they’re placing their greatest emphasis on low-propensity voters -- those less likely to show up on Election Day.
Sometimes compared to a water spigot’s flow that starts out slowly and gradually grows more robust, early voting will continue to accelerate as Election Day nears, based on prior patterns. The associated data, which for now is a relatively small sample, will also become more predictive of what’s happening.
In 2008, about 30 percent of Americans voted before Election Day. That number is projected to grow to at least 35 percent this year, McDonald said.
In Florida, only absentee balloting was available until this past weekend. Almost 1.9 million Floridians cast early and absentee ballots as of this morning, according to the Florida State Department. Democratic voters cast 42.2 percent of those ballots, slightly more than Republicans who accounted for 41.2 percent.
Among only absentee ballots in Florida through Oct. 27, Republicans cast 44 percent, while Democrats accounted for 39 percent, according to numbers from the Florida Democratic Party and Romney’s campaign. That 5-percentage-point advantage is down from a 15-point Republican edge at this point four years ago. Republicans have dominated absentee voting in recent Florida elections; Democrats have traditionally offset that with higher turnout at early-voting polling places.
‘Souls’ to Polls
Black voters are “galvanized” after Republican state lawmakers eliminated early voting in Florida on the Sunday before Election Day -- a day when traditionally black churches held “souls to the polls” events, said retired teacher Bill Tucker in Tallahassee.
“We had all the excitement four years ago, and we’re trying to get that back,” said Tucker, 72, outside the Leon County Courthouse and near a line of more than 80 voters.
In the swing states of Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, voters don’t register by party, so it’s less clear which party has the early-voting edge. Still, the early balloting can be viewed on a geographic basis and compared with 2008 election results.
McDonald said he expects more than 40 percent of Ohio’s voting to be done before Election Day, while the percentage of Virginia’s early voters will be in the “low teens.”
Obama Ohio Edge
Early, in-person voting started Oct. 2 in Ohio, and already more than 1 million people have voted in a state where 5.7 million did so in 2008. A Time magazine poll of likely Ohio voters last week showed Obama with a 2-to-1 lead, 60 percent to 30 percent, among those who have already voted.
Obama’s campaign is banking large numbers of votes in Ohio counties that backed him four years ago. In Franklin County, which includes Columbus, 141,019 people had already voted through Oct. 26, according to the local election board. That represents about a quarter of the county’s total vote in 2008, when 44 percent of the vote was cast before Election Day.
In Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and its suburbs, 161,889 had cast early ballots as of the end of last week, also about a quarter of the 2008 vote.
Ohio early voters favored Democratic candidates in 2010 and 2006, while Election Day voters favored Republican candidates, a study of early voting by the University of Akron concluded. Early voters were more likely to be women, older, and of lower income and education attainment, the 2010 study said.
“The primary reason for early voting is convenience, and many of the groups for whom convenience is a big issue tend to lean Democratic,” said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron.
In Virginia, the early vote so far has been minimal, with just 6.6 percent of the 2008 vote recorded, according to the project’s compilation of state data. New Hampshire doesn’t have early in-person voting.
Democrats and Republicans alike have been encouraging early voting in states that allow it. Obama canceled an absentee ballot he’d already received so that he could cast his ballot in person early in his Chicago precinct, trying to make the point to his supporters of how easy it is to do.
Republicans say many of their core voters, including senior citizens, prefer to vote on Election Day, as they have done for decades. Party officials say they aren’t making any big effort to get those voters to the polls early.