WASHINGTON -- The Obama campaign insisted on Tuesday that on the tangible metrics of the race, President Obama is winning. Campaign manager Jim Messina stressed on the morning conference call that Obama's advantage in early voting numbers gives him an important leg-up on Mitt Romney heading into the election's final weeks.
But does it matter? By and large, the president is winning the early voting numbers in critical swing states and is improving on his strong showing from 2008. But Romney and the RNC have gained ground as well, even closing the margins in places like Ohio.
To the broader point: what actual difference does it make if Romney or Obama turn out their voters early? So long as a significant number of voters don't decide -- unexpectedly -- to just not vote at all, the final tallies shouldn't be too unpredictable. A 51 percent to 49 percent-point race doesn't change because one side's supporters cast their votes two weeks in advance.
That holds true unless, of course, a campaign is using the early voting period to turn out voters that weren't likely to cast ballots to begin with. And in his presentation to reporters, Messina insisted that this is exactly what the Obama team is doing.
"Early vote is not taking a final universe of voters and only changing the day they vote," he explained. "If that’s what we were doing that would be concerning. What early vote does is help us get out low-propensity voters, voters called sporadic voters, which broadens our universe and frees up more Get Out The Vote resources later and especially on Election Day. And let's be very clear, more sporadic Obama voters are voting than sporadic Republicans in the battleground states. And that is both a sign of enthusiasm but also organization strength."
"Sporadic voters" is not a technical term. It refers to that group of people who don't vote every two years or even every four. But these voters have been politically engaged in the past and have the potential to be drawn in to the process again. Since the president in most opinion polls has an advantage over Romney in the number of registered voters, but a deficit in the number of likely voters, finding sporadic voters to fill that gap is critical.
"Sporadic voters matter here," Messina said later in the call. "And it can't just be about getting your traditional Democrat to vote early. If that were the case than we will be wasting our time and money. This is about increasing the overall share of people who may be drop-off voters, and our numbers and public numbers show more sporadic voters are Obama voters than Romney voters."
Considering the time and effort that the Obama campaign has put into its voter identification efforts, its field operations and its Get Out The Vote machine, it would be crippling for them to not get sporadic voters out in strong numbers. It is the antidote to the momentum that the Romney campaign has ridden in the polls. But it's quite difficult, if not impossible, to check Messina's claims.
The Huffington Post asked another Obama campaign official, not authorized to speak publicly on the numbers, to substantiate. He emailed back the following.
"This relies on field data. We are winning midterm and non-midterm voters and are winning them by large margins," he said, noting that non-midterm voters tend to be those who aren't politically engaged. "Their sporadics are not turning out, and we have a lot more of them on our side."