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Early Voting Spinning

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Now with over 3 million people voting across the country, the campaigns are spinning the early vote. Here are my takeaways so far:

Iowa is firming up for Obama. The early vote confirms the polls showing an Obama lead, but by a narrower margin than 2008. Romney still has time to make up ground, but with over 300,000 people voting the clock is certainly ticking.

The early vote indicates that Florida and Ohio are close. We knew that already.

North Carolina started in-person early voting and the early vote numbers shifted dramatically towards registered Democrats. This is expected, as more registered Democrats voted early than Republicans in 2008 and 2004. A point of interest is that North Carolina allows unregistered voters to register and vote all in "one stop." This has the potential of shifting likely voter models since unregistered voters don't make the likely voter screen.

My detailed analysis follows, based on the raw data I report here.

IOWA

Iowa continues to be the state of most interest because of its high volume of early voting. Now over 300,000 people have voted, with registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans 49 percent to 31 percent among voters, and a lesser 46 percent to 31 percent among absentee ballot requests.

The Iowa early vote looks good for Obama. However, in 2008 Democrats had a party registration lead of 47 percent to 29 percent (as of Nov. 1, 2008). If the Romney campaign can convert all the absentee ballot requests, they will narrow the 2008 Democratic advantage ever so slightly, when the actual election results show that Obama won the Iowa early vote 60 percent to 38 percent and won the state 54 percent to 45 percent.

The Iowa early vote thus appears to confirm recent polling showing a narrower Obama lead over Romney than his victory over McCain in 2008. Romney is playing catch up in this critical battleground state.

FLORIDA

The campaigns are engaged in a back and forth spin battle about the Florida early vote. It goes something like this:

Romney campaign: Of the 620,187 mail ballots cast as of Thursday, registered Republicans lead 45.0 percent to 39.5 percent. Advantage Romney!

Obama campaign: Not so fast. Republicans vote by mail in Florida. In 2008, registered Republicans had a 12 percentage point lead among mail ballots (according to my data). Republicans should be doing much better. Advantage Obama!

Complicating matters is that the Obama campaign is encouraging their supporters to vote what is called a "counter vote." Counter votes are like in-person early voting, where a voter goes to an election office, requests a ballot and votes on the spot. It is not quite the same as Florida's in-person early voting soon to be allowed at satellite early voting locations as it is counted as a mail ballot.

With Democrats traditionally favoring in-person early voting and with Democrats lined up at the election office counter to do essentially the same, the mail ballot numbers are now confounded by changing Obama campaign tactics. So take a deep breath on Florida. We won't have a clearer picture of Florida until we are further into the in-person early voting period. At best, the early vote confirms the polling that the Florida election will be close.

OHIO

Ohio is where Republicans are spinning the most, and unfortunately some reporters are buying it. Take CNN, which headlines "Republicans point to early vote gains in Ohio."

The primary source for this story is the Romney campaign, which is promoting party registration statistics to back up their claims. Only at the bottom of the story, does CNN's Peter Hamby write that Ohio does not have party registration. "Party" in Ohio is a record of the last party primary an individual voted in. Worse, Peter Hamby reports this as a he-said-she-said story, noting that it is the Obama campaign who points out Ohio does not have party registration, something he could have easily discovered on his own.

Let's deconstruct another easily verifiable claim in this CNN report.

In Cuyahoga, Republicans only make up about 12 percent of registered voters. Ballot numbers through Tuesday of this week, however, signal that almost 22 percent of early voters in Cuyahoga are Republican.

Advantage Romney!

But not so fast, let's look a the actual numbers that Cuyahoga so helpfully posts online.

As of Thursday's report, there are 124,967 Cuyahoga registered voters who most recently participated in a Republican primary, or 13 percent of all registered voters. There are 17,133 such persons who have voted, or 21 percent of all voters. So far the story is mostly true; perhaps it is based on an earlier Cuyahoga report.

But what about the voters who last participated in a Democratic primary? They are 343,392 of all registered voters, or 37 percent. 49,720 of these folks have voted, or 60 percent. Comparably, a larger percentage of "Democrats" have voted early in Cuyahoga than Republicans, compared to their base registration statistics.

Advantage Obama!

Before we draw that conclusion, let's understand what is really going on here. 2.4 million Ohioans voted in the 2008 Democratic primary, compared to 0.5 million in the Republican primary. Over the course of four years, some of these people were purged from the voter rolls. In 2012, 1.1 million Ohioans voted in the Democratic primary, and 1.2 million voted in the Republican primary. I suspect that there were a good number of Democrats who crossed over and voted in the Republican primary just because it was the more interesting race from the presidential perspective. In Ohio, all of these folks are now labeled Republicans. "Party" is so hopelessly confounded in Ohio that it is next to meaningless to divine who is ahead.

The Cuyahoga numbers do reveal something about early voters. They are highly participatory people who tend to vote in primaries. There are 458,193, or 49 percent, Cuyahoga registered voters who have no record of voting in any primary. Only 15,835 have voted so far, or 19 percent. Let me put this another way, people who vote the earliest are people who just generally vote.

I thus take the same conclusion from the CNN story:

Few in either party question the Obama campaign's sophisticated ground game and most expect Democrats to bank more votes before Election Day. But Republicans have vastly improved their turnout effort in Ohio from the dog days of October 2008.

Just because Romney has a better ground game than McCain, that does not mean that Obama has not stepped up efforts, too. The Cuyahoga numbers show evidence that Obama's campaign is at least keeping pace with Republicans, if not outpacing them.

Looking across the Ohio counties, it appears that early voting is up everywhere across the state. Both campaigns are hard at work through the extended early voting period. Ohio is ground zero for this election, but we already knew that.

NORTH CAROLINA

North Carolina began in-person early voting on Thursday, and oh what a difference a day makes. In one day, over 150,872 people voted in-person, which is the Democrats preferred method of early voting in North Carolina. The party registration numbers were upended. As of Wednesday, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats 52 percent to 27 percent and as of Thursday, Democrats outnumber Republicans 47 percent to 35 percent. But before we call North Carolina for Obama, registered Democrats had healthy early vote leads in 2008 and 2004.

North Carolina has an innovation unavailable elsewhere. In-person early voting is called "one stop" voting in the state because a person can register and vote all in one stop at an early voting polling location. Over 100,000 people took advantage of this in 2008. Unregistered voters don't even make registered voter poll screens, much less likely voter screens. It will be worthwhile to watch if one stop voting moves the North Carolina polling as early voting progresses.

More early vote stats are available here, updated as fast as I can.

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