Why the early vote looks good for Democrats

October 15, 2012

It's still very early in the early voting process, but at least for now, Democrats can be optimistic that they are building a lead in the 2012 presidential race.

Absentee and early voting data from nine states that are generally viewed as competitive at the presidential level show Democrats requesting and returning more absentee ballots than they did in 2008 in Florida and Iowa. And in Iowa, where in-person early voting has already begun, those numbers are also strong for Democrats.

In other states, the picture is too incomplete to be drawing too many broad conclusions at this point.

"There's certainly something going in on these states where more Democrats are casting mail ballots than Republicans, at a comparable point in 2008," said Michael McDonald, an early voting expert at George Mason University. "It’s happening in Florida ... and it’s happening in Iowa."

Here's a breakdown of what we're seeing so far (with a big nod to McDonald's great United State Elections Project Web site, which is compiling the data used in this post and the early voting tracker above):

Iowa

The only state where we have a large amount of data is showing very good signs for Democrats. About 219,000 Iowans have cast early votes or absentee ballots (13.4 percent of the state's 2008 turnout), and so far the breakdown is 53 percent Democratic and 28 percent Republican. 

Republicans have been steadily narrowing that gap, but right now, Democrats are exceeding their 2008 early voting performance, when they carried the early vote by 18 points and President Obama won the state by nine points.

More than one-third of the vote in 2008 came from early voting, so if Democrats maintain their large edge in early voting, it's going to be very tough for Republicans to win by enough on Election Day to make up for their early vote deficit.

That said, Republicans believe the trendline is important here, and they have been chipping away steadily at the Democrats' lead, keeping it around a 50,000-voter edge over the last week. If they continue to chip away at this pace, they will lose the early vote by less than they did in 2008.

Florida

For the first time, we have some good data in this all-important swing state. In-person early voting doesn't start until Oct. 27, but according to the Miami Herald, about 284,000 people have cast absentee ballots so far (about 3.4 percent of the total 2008 turnout). And the breakdown is pretty evenly split -- 44 percent Republican and 40 percent Democrat.

But that's not as good for the GOP as it might seem.

Republican National Committee memo last week cited its their edge in absentee ballots in a number of states, including Florida. But you need to look at those numbers in context. The Herald's Marc Caputo notes that, at this point in 2008, Republicans had a 16-point advantage in absentee ballots and still lost the state. Today, that advantage is just four points.

Indeed, Republicans generally perform better among absentee voters than among in-person early voters. So it's not surprising to see Republicans winning the absentee vote in Florida or other states. The question is by how much.

In-person early voting is generally a much bigger piece of the pie than absentee voting when it comes to the early vote, but Florida Republicans reduced the amount of time that in-person early voting is available.

Because of that smaller window, Democrats are running a more aggressive absentee ballot program, and it seems to be paying off; many Democrats who voted early last time are instead voting absentee this time.

But what that really means is that those voters are simply being counted earlier in the process (absentee rather than in-person early), and Democrats may not have as big an advantage when it comes to in-person early voting.

Ohio

It's a little harder to suss out which side has the early advantage in Ohio, because the state doesn't have party registration. Instead, we have to look at which counties (blue counties or red counties) are voting more often.

So far, the picture is a little mixed. Democrats appear to be benefiting from bigger early turnout in heavily Democratic Franklin County (home to Columbus), where more than 62,000 people have cast early votes (about 11 percent of the county's total 2008 turnout). While the county comprised less than 10 percent of the state's overall turnout in 2008, it's so far been 23 percent of the early vote in 2012.

Another Democratic area -- Cincinnati-based Hamilton County -- is making up about 11 percent of the early vote, even though it was only 7 percent of the overall turnout four years ago.

This data should not be oversold, though. These are more urban areas, which tend to have higher early voting turnout. And other counties paint a different picture.

In the state's third big population center (and Democratic stronghold), Cleveland-based Cuyahoga County, early voting turnout is so far below the state average. And in one of the GOP's biggest vote-grossing counties -- Warren County -- turnout is strong.

North Carolina

It's hard to draw too many conclusions here, because only 51,000 people have cast absentee ballots (about 1.2 percent of the 2008 turnout) and in-person early voting doesn't start until Thursday.

Of those 51,000 absentee ballots, Republicans have returned about twice as much -- 54 percent to 27 percent for Democrats. But once again, Republicans tend to perform better among absentee voters than among in-person early voters (they won the absentee vote in 2008 by basically that exact margin, 54 to 27), and in 2008 about 10 times as many people voted early in-person as cast absentee ballots.

We'll simply have to wait to get a better sense for who has an early edge.

Updated at 4:49 p.m.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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