NEW YORK -- President Barack Obama flew to Chicago on Thursday to cast his vote early -- a first for a sitting president, and a move carefully crafted to set an example for his supporters.
"We never even considered that," marveled Adrian Gray, who served as national voter contact director for the George W. Bush campaign in 2004. "It's a good idea."
It's also a sign of just how dramatically the practice of American voting has changed over the last 10 years. Voters in many states are now allowed to use absentee ballots or in-person voting at election offices to make their decisions early.
Long lines for early voting were common in 2008, when Obama made heavy use of the practice. His campaign is trying to repeat that success this year in places like Wisconsin, where young voters camped out in front of the municipal building in Milwaukee as if they were waiting for an iPhone release.
Now, with the actual election just a week and a half away, both Obama and Mitt Romney's campaigns are claiming an early voting edge. But a close look at the numbers reported so far show that while early voting is up across the board, neither campaign has a distinct advantage.
Obama generally appears to be matching or exceeding his historic 2008 totals, whereas Romney is doing better than Sen. John McCain's anemic performance.
"I think the early vote tells us the same story that we're seeing in the polls, which is that Obama's not going to win by the same margin he did in 2008," said Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University who runs the United States Elections Project. "We see it tightening."
Not every swing state allows for voting early. Of those that do, Iowa is a strong suit for Obama. So is Nevada, where journalist Jon Ralston believes early voting is a "firewall" that will be "tough to pierce" for the GOP. Numbers out of Florida and Colorado, on the other hand, show Romney gaining an edge.
The most disputed battleground is Ohio, where elections officials do not break early voters down by party. Early voting in the state was thrown into confusion this month when the state's Republican Secretary of State John Husted tried to put limits on it, leading to criticism from Democrats. The US Supreme Court decided against Husted's restrictions.
"Notwithstanding the voter suppression, we're doing great," said Stuart Garson, chairman of the Democratic Party in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, and where Obama will need to rack up a big margin to win the state.
To back up his point Garson referred to two crucial numbers: 139,884 people in Cuyahoga County have turned in ballots early so far, compared to 82,764 at this point in 2008. And 19,705 have voted in person, compared to 16,991 around this time in 2008. Most of those people can be safely assumed to be Obama supporters.
"If you look at 2008 as a watershed year," he said, "we are actually up. We have exceeded all of those numbers so far to date, which is really just remarkable."
But Republican voting in Ohio also appears to have improved over 2008, when McCain was forced to run his campaign on a relative shoestring compared to Obama.
"President Obama outspent us in 2008," said Alex M. Triantafilou, the Republican chairman of Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati. But now "our effort has the resources to compete … this is a different race."
"We think the early voting program is working in our favor," he said, pointing to what he said was a strong candidate in Mitt Romney and "a terrific and an organized Tea Party" as prime motivators behind the early voting.
"My belief is let the data do the talking," said Gray, who is not working on the Republican campaign this year, "and I think in most states that I've looked at and analyzed, I'd say that Romney is in a pretty good position, probably looks a lot closer to 2004 than 2008."
If that's true, then the election really might come down to Ohio -- just as it did in 2004, when a shift of just 60,000 votes would have lost Bush the state and the electoral college.
McDonald thinks early voting will get even more intense, and more critical, over the course of the next week. Both sides will want to bank as many votes as they can before Election Day, so they can concentrate their ground game on a few undecided voters.
"They've both stepped up their efforts from 2008," said McDonald. But one side has to do especially well before Nov. 6, he argued, given their dependence on younger and low-income voters who have historically turned out to the polls in lower numbers.
"The Obama campaign is actually in a position where they need to do more of this mobilization activity than the Republicans, because (many) Democrats don't really fit the profile of a likely voter."