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Early Voting May Hold Key to 2012 Election

By Alexis Simendinger - July 27, 2012

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It is widely believed that the majority of early voters share a few key attributes: They are partisans. They are highly motivated to participate in elections. And they select their choice candidate without waiting around for every campaign ad or debate argument. “They could vote now and they’d be happy,” McDonald said.

In a close race like the one between Obama and Romney in which the electorate seems, at least according to months of polling, to be split along partisan lines, there is another important question about early voting: Does it increase overall voter participation?

The jury is still out. McDonald’s research suggests that public perception of close contests influences voter turnout. That helps explain why the Obama campaign is so eager to proclaim the president to be in a dog fight with Romney. McDonald also found that states new to the roster of battleground states in 2008 experienced the largest jumps in turnout compared with 2004. And some states that faded from the battleground picture experienced declines in turnout. He suggested voter mobilization is part of a “plausible” explanation for increased turnout during presidential elections since 2000, coupled with a strong motivation to vote.

The opposite argument -- that early voting often depresses turnout -- has been described by Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Research conducted by Mayer and his university colleagues found that early voting can diminish the inspiration and intensity of the final days of the race because campaigns scale back mobilization efforts, run fewer ads, close offices, and transition campaign workers to more competitive states when they believe votes are already in.

In 2008, Obama managed to expand the electorate and inspire turnout. This year, inspiring a robust turnout will test the president and his team. Republicans are eager to defeat Obama even if they’re not in a deep swoon for Romney. Conservatives believe they have the money, the muscle and the voter lists, thanks to the RNC and pro-Romney super PACs, to tip the scales in October.

“There are so many moving parts to this,” Mayer told RCP, “like how close a state is likely to be, and what you think the payoff will be for a particular mobilization effort among a constituency you think will be in your favor.”

The obvious payoff would be success mobilizing early voting in competitive states that offer handsome bonuses as measured in electoral votes.

In Ohio, with 18 such prizes, the impact of early voting “probably won’t make a difference if the statewide margin is 100,000,” Mayer observed, “but if it’s close enough so that you’re talking about a few tens of thousands of votes, then everything makes a difference.”

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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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