President Obama is on a campaign swing through four Western states. Why these Western states and why now?
Here is a simple answer. California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington share two things in common: They all have competitive races for Senate or governor, and they all have high levels of early voting.
Oregon and Washington hold their elections entirely by mail. Every registered voter in the state has been mailed a ballot. More than six million Californians have signed up for a "permanent absentee ballot" whereby a mail ballot is always sent to them. There are literally millions of Democrats with ballots sitting around their homes piled with the bills and junk mail. They just need someone to encourage them to fill out and return their ballots.
Nevada is a little different. Voters can still cast an absentee ballot, but election officials also open special early-voting polling locations -- typically in high traffic areas -- where any voter can stop by and vote before Election Day.
In all of these states it is likely that a majority of voters -- or much more -- will have already voted by Election Day. The time to hold campaign rallies is these states is now.
President Obama hopes to rally Democrats to cast their ballots early. As Tom Schaller and I document in an academic article, the Obama campaign learned that they could mobilize voters throughout the early voting period. They would hold a campaign rally near an early voting polling place and encourage supporters to march from the rally to the voting booth. They would give premium seating at campaign rallies for people who sported an "I Voted" sticker, and give other perks to early voters. Perhaps most importantly, they recruited volunteers to mobilize other people to vote early.
In contrast, John McCain's campaign only belatedly began even mentioning early voting a week before the election. They had no plan to mobilize early voters, and still do not have an early-voter mobilization organization to match the one the Democrats created. It is Sarah Palin -- not the Republican establishment -- that better understands the value of early voting. She toured multiple Nevada cities at the start of the early voting period to rally her troops, which appears to have paid off in elevating early voting among Republicans.
Want to stop campaign calls and mail sent to your home? Vote early. Every voter that the campaigns bank through early voting is a person they can scratch off their list. This allows them to re-target their resources to other people who have not voted. There is considerable evidence that voter mobilization efforts increase turnout. These mobilization drives may thus be even more effective if they can be stretched over the entire early voting period.
Democrats need to expand the electorate. Fewer people tend to vote in midterm elections than in presidential elections. What is even more important -- and partially explains why Democrats are having difficulty in this midterm election -- is that midterm voters are generally are older, whiter, and of higher income than presidential voters. That is, they tend to be more Republican. So, voter mobilization presents a greater upside for the Democrats than the Republicans in a midterm election. This may explain why Democrats put a greater emphasis on mobilization.
Early voter mobilization appears critical for the Democrats. I track early voting across the country. The early voting numbers so far in the Western states are not as favorable to the Democrats as in some other states. While registered Democrats outnumber Republicans among in-person early voters in Clarke County, Nevada -- the home of Las Vegas and where Democrats are concentrated -- they are not doing so at nearly the rate as in 2008. In Washington, urban counties are lagging behind rural counties in terms of the number of mail ballots that are being returned. Of course, Obama won these states by double-digit margins, so these early voting statistics appear to confirm the polling that suggests elections in these states are going to be tight. Democrats can gain some breathing room by expanding the electorate through early voting.
So this is part of the Democrats' strategy: Use President Obama to rally Democratic voters to vote early, and to recruit volunteers to help with the early-voter ground game. What remains to be seen is if the Democrats' organization can match the Republicans' enthusiasm and money.