More than 800,000 people have already voted in the 2012 general election. A clearer picture of the potential 2012 electorate is emerging in some states where election officials are providing information on who has voted.
Early voting -- both mail and in-person -- is on pace to exceed 2008 levels, when about 30 percent of all votes nationally were cast prior to Election Day. The 2008 levels may be exceeded even further in states such as Iowa and Ohio, where early voting has been brisk. As a corollary, with no collapse in early voting, there is no indication so far that overall turnout, both early and Election Day, will be substantially lower than 2008.
In two states where party registration of early voters is available -- Maine and North Carolina -- slightly more registered Democrats have requested ballots as of a comparable date in 2008. Conversely, fewer registered Republicans have requested ballots. In Iowa, both registered Democrats and Republicans are voting above their 2008 levels, with a greater increase among Democrats.
Ohio presents a more complex picture. Early voting is up quite a bit over the 2008 level. This is likely because election officials sent absentee ballot applications to every registered voter. Ohio does not have party registration, so county-level data provides a better picture of the partisan implications. While levels are somewhat higher in rural counties, they are up in urban counties, too. In-person early voting is a preferred choice of urbanites, so the differences observed so far may narrow as in-person early voting continues. While the Obama campaign has been concerned about the limitation of in-person early voting during the weekend in Ohio, there is little indication so far that this has negatively influenced in-person voting. Still, the heaviest period of in-person voting in 2008 was the weekend prior to the election, so caution should be taken when projecting out from this lighter period of early in-person voting.
A more detailed state-by-state analysis follows.
Iowa sticks out as a sore thumb in early voting. Already, more than 200,000 people have voted in Iowa, a much larger share of the potential 2012 electorate than any other state.
The number of registered Democrats who have voted is about twice that of registered Republicans, 53 percent to 28 percent, with the remainder unaffiliated. Bet let's not be so fast in calling Iowa for Obama. In 2008, Democrats outpaced Republicans 47 percent to 29 percent among early voters. Among the nearly 400,000 ballot requests in 2012, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a narrower margin: 48 percent to 30 percent. Republicans have been steadily making up ground among the votes cast and the ballot requests.
Romney needs more Republicans to vote early or needs Election Day to be vastly different, since Obama won the state by nine percentage points in 2008. An early vote electorate that looks like 2008 would therefore pose a difficult uphill climb for Romney. If these early vote numbers fail to firm up further for Romney, Iowa may be the first state where the campaign will have to make a tough strategic decision as to whether or not to continue expending resources.
MAINE and NORTH CAROLINA
Maine and North Carolina provide detailed individual records of registered voters who have requested a ballot and the disposition of the ballot. Using this information it is possible to make a comparison of the number of ballot requested in 2012 to the same point in time as in 2008 (adjusting for the fact that the election was held two days earlier in 2008).
In these states the number of registered Democrats requesting ballots has increased from 2008, while the number of registered Republicans decreased. In North Carolina, the number registered Democrats increased by 695 over 2008, while registered Republicans decreased by 2,521. In Maine, the registered Democrats increased by 427, while registered Republicans decreased by 1,922.
These are just small deviations, so there is ample time for Republicans to catch up. However, these statistics do not square with surveys that find that Democrats are less engaged than Republicans in this election. This is critical since engagement is often a factor in who is a likely voter.
Republicans have crowed that the number of Ohio-registered Republicans voting early has increased from 2008. The problem with this assertion is that Ohio does not have party registration. "Party" in Ohio is a record of the last party primary a voter participated in. Naturally, with only a contested 2012 Republican presidential primary, the number of "registered Republicans" in the state increased. Because party statistics are so deeply confounded in Ohio, I prefer to examine patterns of early voting across counties.
A significant change in Ohio is that election officials mailed an absentee ballot application to every registered voter. This appears to have stimulated interest in mail balloting.
In Hamilton County, home of Cincinnati, it is possible to make an apples-to-apples comparison at the same point in time to the 2008 election by examining data provided by the county election officials. The number of ballot applications is currently at 84,999 compared to 60,005 in 2008. A 42 percent increase.
Compare Hamilton to a rural county like Defiance. So far, there are 3,021 ballot applications in 2012, compared with 1,935 applications in 2008. A 56 percent increase.
Where urban counties may make up ground in the coming weeks is among in-person early voting, which is more prevalent in urban areas. Of course, another much-reported Ohio change is the cancellation of weekend early voting hours. However, so far this has not resulted in a lower volume of early voting compared to 2008 in some of the larger counties. In Cuyahoga, the number of in-person early voters in 2008 was 8,400 while in 2012 the number is 10,440 -- despite no weekend or Columbus Day voting. Still, I would caution that the heaviest volume of early voting is yet to come the week before Election Day. The change in the early voting law may thus depress some votes, but perhaps with so many people voting by mail, the effect will be offset by increased mail balloting which will also reduce Election Day congestion at the polling places.
Follow Michael P. McDonald on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ElectProject