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Early Voting May Hold Key to 2012 Election

By Alexis Simendinger - July 27, 2012

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The current neck-and-neck status of the presidential race suggests that every ballot cast could make a difference in the Electoral College states that are expected to determine the victor. That includes ballots cast by active-duty military and even U.S. voters living overseas. It’s a point the Obama campaign relentlessly drives home to supporters, hoping to raise the stakes and gin up enthusiasm for the incumbent. “It takes one,” is Michelle Obama’s newest challenge to campaign volunteers.

The campaigns are able to gauge their progress and redeploy their resources before Election Day because they can track information in many early-voting states that tells them who has already voted. The running lists are public and identify who filled out ballots in-person at designated locations, who requested absentee ballots, and which completed ballots arrived after being dropped off or mailed. 

It may not be commonly understood that tallies of early voting (individual’s names, addresses, party registration) are public and open to examination in many states leading up to Election Day. This information affirms for campaigns and the political parties which individuals cast ballots early, or are in the process of doing so. The campaigns are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on techniques and technologies to reach eligible voters. By registering them to participate, then encouraging them to act early, and then shepherding those supporters to the finish line where they can vote early, the campaigns build cushions under their candidates and gather up valuable data along the way.

Locking up votes early means campaign workers can shift to other targets for support, and deploy money, staff and volunteers more efficiently. The campaigns can encourage voters to avoid Election Day lines and inclement weather, and assist them with voter eligibility issues and ballot questions.

The candidates also hope that building a bank of early votes could offset the impact of any negative, late-breaking information that could flip supporters to their opponent, or make backers sit it out on Election Day. Indeed, the fact that so many Americans are voting earlier may discourage opponents from waiting until the eve of an election to unleash negative surprises, such as George W. Bush’s DUI troubles, or the inflammatory tape recordings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and to encourage candidates to come clean about their foibles earlier -- and on their own terms.

Romney’s voter identification experts say they are so prepped for each state’s early-voting rules that they “have it down to exactly how many days after the first ballot is available [that] we need to start calling to be sure that those people are returning their ballots,” Kukowski explained. “We know exactly when we need to get to people.”

The Obama campaign, which put early voting to good use in 2008 while McCain did not, boasts the effort is now “baked into our everyday organizing program,” as one source put it.

That organizing program spans “events with campaign principals and surrogates, to phone calls from volunteers to their neighbors in field offices across the country, to making sure voters know how they can make sure their vote is counted legally,” said campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher. In states where voters have weeks to vote rather than a day, the Obama campaign alerts potential supporters to the details of those options.

Blending early-voting trends since 2004 with the GOP’s ambitions to compete with some of the Obama team’s innovations, the coordinated RNC and Romney teams compiled a list of states and expectations for early voting (as percentages of all votes cast). The following are forecasts Republicans are using, alongside comparisons from 2008. The early voting calculations from the last election come from state-reported data, as well as published figures compiled by George Mason University's Michael McDonald, who is an authority on the subject:

Colorado, 85 percent (78.9); Nevada, 75 percent (66.9); New Mexico, 72 percent (62.3); North Carolina, 70 percent (60.6); Florida, 70 percent (51.8); Ohio, 45 percent (30); Iowa, 41 percent (36); Michigan, 30 percent (20.4); Wisconsin, 30 percent (21.2); Virginia, 20 percent (13.5); and New Hampshire, 11 percent (10).

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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