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Early Voting May Hold Key to 2012 Election

Early Voting May Hold Key to 2012 Election

By Alexis Simendinger - July 27, 2012


News flash: The country's next president may be elected in October, not November.

Confused?

Campaign strategists working for President Obama and Mitt Romney say they're organized for an October election. And both candidates believe early voting in key battleground states could conceivably forecast the next president days and perhaps weeks before most voters turn out on Nov. 6.

Early voting -- which has become a significant trend since 2004 -- helps explain why July’s campaign advertising for and against the presidential contenders has been so intense well before most of the country goes to the polls. It’s part of the reason why both candidates this summer have put a premium on mobilizing their respective bases, and wooing fence-sitters where they can.

The importance of early voting underscores why the Obama campaign told Floridians on July 12 how to request mail-in ballots, well in advance of an Oct. 31 deadline. And early voting proved enough of a missed opportunity for the GOP in 2008 that Republicans’ have revised their get-out-the-vote playbook. Romney’s team describes the importance of early voting and its strategies to lock up pre-Election Day ballots as “the chase.”

“It’s kind of changed the game,” Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, told RCP. “It’s changed the dynamics.”

And here’s why: The calendar for pre-Nov. 6 voting in certain swing states is just weeks away. In Iowa, for example, early voting starts Sept. 27. In Ohio, it begins Oct. 2. That’s one day before anyone in the Buckeye State will have heard a word of the first presidential debate, scheduled for Oct. 3 in Denver. In Colorado, early voting opens up hours before the final debate between Obama and Romney is to occur in Boca Raton, Fla., on Oct. 22. And in Florida -- where one-third of all votes were cast before Election Day in 2008 -- balloting this year will begin five days after that last debate. In North Carolina, where Obama’s margin over John McCain was a mere 14,177 votes in 2008, pre-Election Day voting begins Oct. 18. In Nevada, it starts Oct. 20.

About 30 percent of all votes in 2008, or nearly 40 million, were cast before Election Day. That proportion of early participation was unprecedented, and experts who study early voting expect the trend to continue in the low- to mid-30 percent range this year. Even if the total number of votes cast isn’t as high as the 131 million counted in 2008, the early-voting trend could steam ahead because both campaigns this year are evenly matched in terms of money and methods to turn out the vote. Plus, states have continued to adapt to the realities of convenience voting, while voters are getting more acclimated to the opportunities.

In 1972, early voting was a tiny asterisk -- about 4 percent of votes cast. Twenty years later, it was 7 percent. But by 2004, the trend had bloomed to 20 percent, according to federal census data. Early voting leapfrogged again in 2008, largely because Democrats worked intensively to take advantage of the rolling election calendar.

The early voting phenomenon has moved the goal posts for presidential candidates and the parties, reshaped the nature of voter mobilization, intensified the focus on battleground states and election laws, and created openings to gauge (and influence) who is winning -- and where. It’s also inspired data-driven debates about whether early voting is increasing or decreasing overall turnout.

“It’s a part of everything we do,” a spokesman for the Obama campaign, commenting on background, told RCP. “For example, you have to talk to persuadable voters earlier because they have the option to vote early, so it’s not just about the turnout game. And it’s why we hired all of our early-vote/GOTV directors already, and why our long-term organizing for the past five years will pay off,” he explained in an email. “We are ready earlier than ever.”

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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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