By Francis Wilkinson
By the time Newt Gingrich won a convincing victory in South Carolina on Jan. 20, an event that upended a volatile Republican race yet again, more than 200,000 Floridians had already cast early or absentee ballots in the Republican primary.
Thousands more voted before Gingrich released information on his lucrative consulting contract with Freddie Mac; before the super Pac supporting his campaign received another $5-million installment from a controversial billionaire couple in Las Vegas; before Mitt Romney released his 2010 tax returns and launched a blistering media attack against Gingrich, describing him as an "influence peddler" who is too “erratic” and “reckless” to be president.
Debates have been integral to the campaign this year, yet more than 447,000 Floridians cast ballots before the Jan. 26 debate in Tampa, the last before the state’s Jan. 31 primary. By the time the candidates took the stage that night in Jacksonville, 11 percent of Florida’s 4 million registered Republicans -- and a higher percentage of actual voters -- had already voted.
More than two thirds of Americans live in states or localities that permit early voting. The innovation has made voting more convenient for millions, who needn't bolt across town in an Election Day downpour to exercise the franchise. For elderly or disabled voters, the benefits are especially obvious. The machinery of U.S. elections is often creaky and the local school gymnasium or veterans' hall is not always easily accessible. Better to fill out an early ballot at home and post it when skies are clear.
Convenience, however, has a cost. Campaigns are not static; they add information, context and plot points as they move forward. Three months ago, Herman Cain -- remember him? -- was the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president. As voters gained more information (much of it concerning Cain's lack of same), his campaign collapsed.
Florida has ten media markets, including expensive ones in Miami, Orlando and Tampa. Early voting there inevitably gives a leg up to the wealthiest campaign – in this case Romney’s. His campaign has not only outspent Gingrich's forces 5-1, it ruled the airwaves in the weeks leading up to early voting, before Gingrich or Rick Santorum could mount advertising of their own.
As Republican consultant Alex Castellanos told CNN.com last week, "If Florida's a jump ball, Romney will get a tip just because of the absentee ballots."
Some partisans are so devoted to their candidate that no new information could alter their vote. But in a primary season in which several different Republicans have lead the pack only to watch their support evaporate, it’s clear that many voters’ impressions are powerfully influenced by the changing dynamics of the campaign.
Early voting has not been the boon to turnout that many had hoped. Turnout has risen only slightly in recent years, and it’s unclear if early voting can be credited even for that. There is a reason that jurors don't decide a case until all the evidence in. Politics is a long game with long consequences. Voters who opt for convenience over the full-length electoral drama may sell the race – and themselves – short.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)
-0- Jan/30/2012 15:42 GMT