Beyond election-eve polls, the best indicator of how this election will turn out is to look at who has already voted. Early voting has now ended across the country, and the results are very good news for Barack Obama and the Democrats. In four swing states - Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and North Carolina, the early voting period has seen numbers equal to at least two-thirds of all ballots cast in 2004. More than half of the '04 totals have been surpassed in Florida (54%) and Georgia (60%).
More Democrats than Republicans have early voted in these states - in some by big margins. In most, this is a sharp reversal from the early voting edge Republicans enjoyed four years ago, when Bush won all six battlegrounds.
Just as Team Obama out-hustled Hillary Clinton by devoting time to organizing the caucus states, they have soundly beaten McCain-Palin on the early voting front. And they were helped by McCain's cash-strapped, strategy-challenged, demoralized, disorganized campaign. True to form, McCain dropped the ball. Judging by turnout figures, the GOP had no early voting plan.
Early voting in Charlotte, N.C.
For example, in North Carolina, where 2008 marks the third presidential cycle early voting has been made available, 2,573,899 voters cast early or absentee ballots, or 41% of the state's 6.25 million registered voters. This is an astounding 259% increase over the 992,231 early and absentee votes cast during 2004.
52% were Democrats this year, versus 30% Republicans and 18% unaffiliated, a 22-point Democratic advantage. In 2004, the Democratic Party also made early voting an integral part of their GOTV game, but only managed to gain an 11-point advantage over Republicans (48.5-37.5%) in a much smaller early voter universe.
Early voting turnout already represents 72.5% of all the 3.5 million votes cast in North Carolina during 2004, which skewed 56-43.5% for Bush over Kerry. Black voters are overrepresented in the statewide early vote numbers, accounting for 26.5% of the total. 2006 Census Bureau figures estimate North Carolina's African-American population to be 21.7%.
Research on early voting shows that it "disproportionately rewards campaigns that are better organized," according to UCal-Riverside political science professor Benjamin Bishin, who has studied early voting in Florida, because it requires campaigns to roll out more complicated GOTV efforts. It also may benefit Democrats because it "lowers barriers to participation," especially for working class voters who can't afford to take time off to vote on the Tuesday of Election Day.
Early voters in Fort Lauderdale, FL on Sunday, Nov. 2
The Obama campaign's early voting advantage was evident around the country. Celebrities and rock stars streamed into battleground states and drew crowds to rallies held during early voting hours, usually located close to early voting sites.
In Florida, Matt Damon and Jason Alexander headlined a string of early voting rallies. In North Carolina, Ashley Judd and Chris Rock held events in the vote-rich Triangle region during early voting's final days. Judd and Rock have also hosted rallies in Missouri and Florida for the campaign, and Colorado saw Kevin Costner pitch early voting. James Taylor returned home to North Carolina to play five free concerts across the state that doubled as early voting events.
Interviewed by the Miami Herald, Jason Alexander summed up why it made sense for the campaign to deploy stars at GOTV rallies:
"I don't think people like to be proselytized to because someone's been on a television show," he said. "It doesn't give us special powers . . . the key reason for a celebrity surrogate is to create an environment where people come out and then go early vote."
Even absent celebrities, Obama offices organized community marches to early voting sites. In Florida, 27 such marches were held statewide on October 27th, one march for each of Florida's electoral votes. Drum-line marches were staged in Miami's black neighborhoods. In North Carolina, early voting marches organized by students at the state's historically black colleges drew thousands to the polls on the very first day of early voting.
Early voting march in Nevada, Oct. 18
Banking base voters early is now allowing the campaign to focus its energy in the home stretch on independent and undecided voters. "You're simply able to throw that much more at the people who haven't voted yet," said Bishin. And Obama volunteers were sent not only to greet early voters at pollsites and arm them with information about each state's ballot design and down-ticket Democratic races, but to provide bottled water to voters when lines backed up.
This all builds on the historic gains in Democratic voter registration that the Obama campaign has engineered in the battleground states. Since 2004, voter rolls have surged by 946,000 in Florida (up 9%), 737,000 in North Carolina (up 13%), and 375,000 in Nevada, a 35% increase.
Democratic registrations have increased the most in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and shockingly competitive Arizona. Republican registrations declined in Colorado, Florida and Pennsylvania but were up by 16% in Nevada (compared with a 39% jump for the Democrats).
More about the actual early vote totals. In Colorado, 56% of the state's registered voters have cast 1,477,836 early votes or mail-in absentee ballots. Democrats have outnumbered Republican early voters by 37.7% to 35.9%, with 26.4% declaring other or no party affiliation. This is up from the 48% of registered Coloradoans who voted early or absentee in 2004, or 913,222 early votes out of 2,148,036 total.
Early voters in Colorado
Four years ago, Republicans led Democrats in early voting by a 42-34% margin, on their way to carrying Colorado for Bush with 51.7% to Kerry's 47%. In 2008, the number of votes already recorded during the early voting period in Colorado is equivalent to 69% of all votes cast in that state in the 2004 general election.
The Obama GOTV operation in Colorado has gotten out more of the core Democratic vote than its GOP counterpart. In the state's Democratic strongholds of Denver and Boulder, early vote turnout ran higher than in rock-solid Republican El Paso County, home to Colorado Springs. Enough votes have already been cast in Denver County to equal 58.7% of its 2004 totals, and 62.7% for Boulder County, versus 52.6% in El Paso County.
In Florida, Democratic voters have cast 46% of the state's eye-popping 4.1 million early votes and absentee ballots, versus 38% for Republicans. During 2004, GOP voters led Democrats in early and absentee balloting by 44-41 percent. Florida's early voting turnout this year represents nearly 54% of votes cast in 2004 (7.64 million), when Bush beat Kerry by 52-47%.
African-American turnout is sharply up in urban areas. Through last Thursday, black voters had cast 39% of all early ballots in Broward County, 30% of votes in Miami-Dade and Orange counties, and 36% in Duval County. As of 2006, African-Americans made up an estimated 15.4% of Florida's population.
Early voting rally in Nevada
Early voting is here to stay, and Democrats adapted to the new environment first, culminating in this year's Obama-led nationwide early vote effort. Its success marks the clearest indicator seen so far that Tuesday night will bring a Democratic landslide in the wake of Obama's tsunami.
(To report voter suppression tactics at the polls, call the nonpartisan Election Protection Coalition toll-free at 1-866-OUR-VOTE, or visit their website to see the latest reports from your state.)
(UPDATE 11/5 - En route to his historic victory, President-elect Obama carried most of the battlegrounds his campaign targeted, helped enormously by his early voting leads in states including Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. With 100% of precincts reporting and only provisional ballots still to be counted as of Wednesday morning, McCain trails Obama in North Carolina by slightly over 12,000 votes. Defeated Republican moderate Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut summed up the election:
" 'There was this tsunami throughout the country,' said Rep. Christopher Shays, a 21-year House member from Connecticut and the last Republican in the New England delegation, who suffered defeat at the hands of Democrat Jim Himes.")
Erik Ose is a veteran of Democratic campaigns in North Carolina and blogs at The Latest Outrage.