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Early Voting May Hold Key to 2012 Election

By Alexis Simendinger - July 27, 2012

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“We could know before Election Day in some of these states who wins,” Kukowski said. “That kind of knowledge, when we’re in the middle of our get-out-the-vote efforts, is obviously a very important thing for us to know. It’s all about efficiency. If we feel pretty good about our data in a state where we already know where 70 percent of the voters stand, that just frees us up for some of the other states where [voting] is mostly on Election Day.”

Romney’s team believes that by October, the winner could be evident in at least four key states, which account for 59 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

“Florida, North Carolina, Nevada and Colorado -- those four states, people argue, are going to be very, very important in the last couple weeks of the campaign,” Kukowski continued. “The fact that over 70 percent of their electorates will have already voted by the time October ends is critical.”

Asked to size up the GOP projections for early voting, an Obama campaign source said the forecasts were high but “not out of the question.” A surge in early voting in Ohio to 45 percent this year appeared large, for example, “but it’s feasible,” he said.

Professor McDonald, who teaches at George Mason’s Department of Public and International Affairs and is the creator of the United States Elections Project website, also pegged the GOP projections as a bit on the high side.

“Maybe these are Romney targets based on expectations of their mobilization efforts,” he told RCP after examining the list. If they are right, early voting in 2012 might be “somewhere in the mid- to high 30 percent range,” he said. Looking at the GOP’s Ohio projection, for instance, he wondered if Romney’s team aimed to increase early voting in the state’s rural regions, to counter Democrats’ anticipated success in mobilizing Obama supporters in the state’s urban areas.

If the Romney campaign is ambitious to expand early voting to benefit the GOP nominee, one question is with which voters they’ll accomplish it.

College-age voters who are enrolled in classes away from home can vote early or by absentee ballot. But Romney’s play for those voters (in key battleground states) on issues they care about has been difficult to discern. Obama’s outreach, on the other hand, has been in plain view. He’s touting his fight in Congress for continued low-interest student loans, the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that young adults up to age 26 be covered on their parents’ insurance, and the president’s determination that eligible children of illegal immigrants be allowed to stay in the United States rather than face deportation.

The elderly -- who participate in large numbers in presidential elections -- appear to favor absentee and early in-person voting because inconveniencies are minimized. While Obama won in every age category in 2008 except among senior citizens, he may be faring better this year among the over-65 crowd. Romney, on the other hand, has gained on Obama among likely voters between ages 35 and 54. In swing states with large populations of senior citizens, the elderly could help select a winner by October.

African-Americans of all ages, who backed Obama in 2008, participated in Democrats’ “Souls to the Polls” programs that encouraged early voting on Sundays. Since then, legislative changes that eliminated Sunday voting in some states sparked Democratic Party accusations of GOP intentions to suppress the vote for the president.

The Obama campaign, joined by the Democratic National Committee, filed a federal lawsuit July 17 against Ohio’s top elections officer, arguing that election-law changes embraced by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature disenfranchised many voters by eliminating early, in-person voting on the final three days before Election Day. “The United States Supreme Court has stated clearly . . . that 'having once granted the right to vote on equal terms, the State may not, by arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person’s vote over that of another,’” wrote campaign general counsel Robert Bauer in an opinion column published by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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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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