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Early Voting Mesmerizing

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With more than 10 million people already casting a ballot, early voting is on pace likely to exceed the 41 million cast in 2008. Next week will be crunch time as millions of people across the country cast ballots.

Everyone wants to know who is winning. In my commentary below I explain why I conclude Obama has narrow leads in Iowa and Nevada, Romney has a narrow lead in North Carolina, and in the remainder the early vote is not providing a clear direction yet. There is still ample time for conditions to change, but it will be increasingly difficult to do so as more votes pour in.

There are instructive patterns other than the horse race. The patterns of early voting in Florida and Ohio suggest that Obama supporters are successfully overcoming limitations in early voting enacted by those states' Republican governments.

To date, early voters have been primarily high propensity voters; strong partisans who know who they will vote for. In the coming week, the early voting volume will pick up substantially, and we will see more of the lower to moderate propensity voters who are more persuadable enter the early electorate. In some of these close states, there is still time for the candidates to gain advantage though early voting as we reach the critical home stretch.

The data for this analysis can be found here, where I track the early vote in real time, as much as that is humanly possible. (The blog title is a wink to those who tell me they keep my website open during the day. Thank you to all the well-wishers!)

IOWA

Iowa continues to firm up as more votes come in, now with 423,586 voted. Registered Republicans have been making gains on Democrats during the early voting period in terms of party registration. But on Monday of this week Republicans peaked among absentee ballot requests, at 30.9 percent. By Thursday, their share of ballot requests dropped to 30.8 percent. The Democrats have been losing ground, too, starting the week at 44.9 percent and ending it at 44.0 percent. The gain is among those who do not registered with a party, something I discuss below.

Romney needs to make up more ground than he has among the early vote -- or have a great showing on Election Day -- in order to win Iowa. Obama won the state by 9.5 percentage points in 2008, when registered Democrats were 46.9 percent of early voters and Republicans were 28.9 percent. Closing the early voting gap by a couple of points is not enough, especially since the level of early voting will likely exceed 2008. The Iowa early vote thus confirms the polling showing an Obama lead, perhaps smaller than 2008.

NEVADA

Currently, registered Democrats lead Republicans by 45.8 percent to 37.3 percent statewide. A tidy comparison to 2008 is unfortunately impossible. In 2008, the state reported only in-person voting without party registration. So, to infer something about the state of play in Nevada, we can examine the geographic distribution of support across counties, with the Democratic stronghold of Clark -- home of Las Vegas -- figuring most prominently.

So far in 2012, 263,782 Nevadans had voted in-person. In 2008 -- for the same number of days prior to the election -- 199,412 Nevadans had voted early in-person. In 2012, Clark County comprised 68.8 percent of those who had voted and in 2008 they were 68.4 percent. So, the geographic composition of the Nevada early electorate look similar to 2008, when Obama won the state by 12.2 percentage points.

The Nevada early vote thus points in the same direction we've seen in the polls, which consistently show Obama leads.

NORTH CAROLINA

The North Carolina early vote looks good for Obama at first glance. Over 1.1 million North Carolinians have voted, and registered Democrats are 50.3 percent of these voters while Republicans are 30.8 percent.

Republicans have improved their standing. During the entire early period in 2008, Democrats were 51.4 percent of early voters and Republicans were 30.1 percent. And at the same point in time prior to the election in 2008, Democrats were 55.9 percent of early voters and Republicans were 27.2 percent.

It is possible that in North Carolina -- or any state -- these changes are simply a rearranging of furniture as people vote at different times. But, with the polls showing a narrow Romney lead on average in a state that Obama won by a razor-thin margin of 0.3 percentage points in 2008, the most reasonable conclusion is that the early voting confirms Romney has a small North Carolina lead.

Unlike Iowa for Romney, there is more opportunity for Obama to turn things around. The early voting volume is much higher than 2008, with 210,909 more people voting at the relative same point in time. So, his current lead, although smaller than 2008, may be more meaningful to the election outcome. Also, the state's "one stop" voting, where an unregistered voter can register and vote at an in-person early voting location, offers Obama the opportunity to covert more non-voters -- from a polling perspective -- to already voted.

COLORADO

As of Friday, 626,097 Coloradoans have voted. The party registration looks good for Romney with 36.1 percent registered Democrats voting to date and 39.0 percent Republicans. In comparison, in 2008, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans 37.7 percent to 35.9 percent, when Obama won the state by 8.9 percentage points. The early vote thus points to a closer election than 2008, which corroborates the polling showing a close race.

Florida and Ohio: The vote suppression dog that didn't bark?

I hesitate to draw conclusions from the early voting in Florida and Ohio, other than to say that the election is close. These states are hopelessly confounded by the campaigns' mobilizing activities. But those activities inform us about the much discussed and litigated attempts by Republican state governments in these states to curtail early voting.

In Florida, 1.13 million mail ballots have been cast with 1.49 million ballots yet to be returned. The volume of early voting will thus likely exceed 2008, when 1.85 million mail ballots were cast.

Democrats trail Republicans 39.3 percent to 44.5 percent among mail ballots. At first blush, this is good news for Romney, but Florida Republicans usually win the mail ballots by much wider margin, by 12 percentage points or higher, and Democrats make up ground in in-person early voting.

The Obama campaign is encouraging their supporters to vote during the mail ballot period -- either by mail or in-person at election offices, what is called a "counter vote." We will have to see if the increased levels of voting offset the reduction in in-person early voting, starting on Saturday, Oct. 16, but will now be unavailable the following weekend. While mail balloting levels are high, keep in mind that 2.66 million Floridians voted early in-person in 2008, with more available days and hours.

We are not getting the best data out of Ohio. The state has what is known as "bottom up" election administration where the local counties are preeminent. There is no central reporting of mail ballots as can be found in many other states. So, we are left with deciphering a dated and stale Ohio Secretary of State report of statewide early vote activity and collecting local data where it is available (and these two sources conflict). In a state without party registration, the best that can be done is look at the voting patterns across the state.

Cuyahoga County is providing easily accessible data. Election officials report that despite a curtailment of weekend early voting by seven days so far -- yes, although the U.S. Supreme Court allowed weekend-before-the-election early voting to continue, there has been no weekend early voting to date -- the number of persons voting in-person in Cuyahoga so far is 23,954, compared to 20,334 for the same number of days prior to the election in 2008.

Although we do not have apples-to-apples comparison with mail ballots, Cuyahoga and the other urban counties are poised to exceed their 2008 early voting levels. But so, too, are the rural counties. Many voters thus appear to be taking advantage of mail ballot application that election officials sent to every registered voter in the state. Furthermore, both campaigns are fully engaged in a Ohio ground war encouraging their supporters to vote early by any means. Ohio continues to look to be a close state.

Attention Now Turns to Independents

Until now, the typical early voter has been a person who fits the profile of a likely voter: someone who follows politics closely and is certain who they are going to vote for. In the next week, more independent voters will enter the electorate. States that are predominantly voting by mail so far provide evidence in their partisan registration statistics.

  • In Florida, unaffiliated voters are 16.2 percent of persons who have voted, but are 21.0 percent of persons who have requested but not returned a ballot.
  • In Iowa, unaffiliated voters are 22.7 percent of persons who have voted, but are 25.1 percent of persons who have requested but not returned a ballot.
  • In Maine, unaffiliated voters are 26.1 percent of persons who have voted, but are 34.0 percent of persons who have requested but not returned a ballot.
  • In Maryland, unaffiliated voters are 12.0 percent of persons who have voted, but are 17.1 percent of persons who have requested but not returned a ballot.
  • In North Carolina, unaffiliated voters are 19.0 percent of persons who have voted, but are 24.6 percent of persons who have requested but not returned a ballot.
Cuyahoga County, Ohio permits us to look at this from another perspective in another report. Although Ohio does not have party registration, election officials record the last party primary an individual voted in. Among persons who have already voted, 21.9 percent are persons who have never voted in a primary, but are 39.7 percent of those who have requested but not returned a ballot.

Why are there more unaffiliated, lower propensity voters among those who have asked for a mail ballot, but have not cast one yet? People vote when they decide whom to vote for. What these statistics indicate is that there remains a pool of undecided voters, perhaps larger than many polls suggest.

The early voting ground war will shift in the coming week away from banking votes of people who would likely have voted anyway and towards voters who are less tied to the parties and are lower propensity voters. Keep in mind, too, that This will be a critical time for the Obama campaign, since many polls show Obama faring better among registered voters than among likely voters. If these voters are holding their ballots because they have yet to come to a decision on who to vote for, the Romney campaign cannot ignore the potential to sway some of these voters into voting for their candidate.

More early vote data available here
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