Early vote tightens in swing states

October 22, 2012

We wrote last week that Democrats were seeing some strong absentee and early voting numbers in swing states in the first half of October.

Over the last week, though, there are signs that things are tightening.

The GOP is making strides in Iowa and Ohio, even as the information we have continues to suggest Democrats leading in those states.

And as voters head to the polls for the first days of in-person early voting in Nevada and North Carolina, the numbers in those states are looking a lot like they did four years ago.

In-person early voting begins Monday in Colorado and Wisconsin, meaning we will have much more data to work with in the coming days.

For now, here's our latest state-by-state recap (with a big thanks to Michael McDonald's great early voting resource, the United States Elections Project):

Iowa

While Democrats opened a big early lead in absentee and in-person early voting, Republicans have stopped the bleeding and are now on pace to do better than they did four years ago.

While Democrats had a 60 percent-to-22 percent lead on Oct. 5, the GOP has closed the gap considerably since then, down to 48 percent to 31 percent. The GOP is now closer, percentage-wise, than it was in 2008, when it lose absentee and early voters 47-29.

At the same time, while the GOP has closed the percentage gap, Democrats have maintained (and very slowly extended) their actual vote margin, from about 49,000 votes on Oct. 5 to 55,000 votes Monday.

Still, if the GOP continues at its current pace, Democrats won't win the early vote by as much as they did in 2008 (87,000 votes).

Ohio

As we have said before, it's very hard to draw concrete conclusions here, because party registration doesn't work like it does elsewhere. In Ohio, party registration is simply the last primary you have voted in. So if Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents voted in the GOP presidential primary this year -- the only competitive race for them to choose -- they would be considered "Republicans" under the state's party registration guidelines.

For this reason, it's not terribly instructive to look at how many "Republicans" and "Democrats" have voted. Instead, we like to focus on turnout in areas that tend to lean one way or the other.

Democrats note that two of their strongholds -- Cleveland-based Cuyahoga County and Columbus-based Franklin County -- have had big early turnout, accounting for about 30 percent of the state's early and absentee votes. They also note that two polls Monday (CBS News/Quinnipiac University and Suffolk University) show Obama winning early voters in Ohio by 13 and 15 points.

(We should note that few poll respondents -- about one in five -- said they have voted early, which means there is a significantly larger margin of error when it comes to polling this number.)

On the GOP side, turnout is strong in the GOP strongholds of Delaware County and Warren County, for example. Republicans also point out that earlier polls showed Obama winning the early vote by more than 13 or 15 points -- which suggests they are closing the gap.

According to a Democratic analysis, about 40,000 more early votes (54 percent of the total) have been cast in precincts that Obama won in 2008 vs. ones John McCain won, but that number is down from just a few days ago, when there were 56,000 more votes in Obama precincts.

Nevada

Early voting here began Saturday and is so far looking very much like 2008.

While Democrats had a 21-point advantage in the state's largest county -- Las Vegas-based Clark County -- in 2008, so far this year they have a 22-point advantage. And in the state's bellwether county, Reno-based Washoe County, Democrats lead by nine points after winning the early vote there in 2008 by 12 points.

Overall, Democrats lead 49 percent to 35 percent.

Republicans note that Democrats started out stronger in 2008 than they did this weekend.

The early vote here is huge, given that two-thirds of the state voted before Election Day in 2008. Keep a close eye on Clark County, in particular, since it's about three-fourths of the state's electorate.

Florida

With in-person early voting set to begin next week, the GOP currently leads 45 percent to 39.5 percent on absentee ballots.

That lead isn't quite as big as it was four years ago, when Republicans won absentee balloting by 12 points.

But Republicans note that, with the period for early in-person voting reduced this year, Democrats have shifted more of their attention to turning out absentee voters.

We'll have to wait and see what happens when in-person early voting starts on Saturday, given that's generally a much bigger piece of the puzzle than absentees.

North Carolina

In-person early voting began on Thursday, which has allowed Democrats to gain a lead. While the GOP led significantly on absentee ballots, adding early in-person voting has tilted the scales to a 51 percent-to-31 percent Democratic lead.

We should note, though, that many of these may be conservative Democrats voting for Romney (more than 20 percent of Democratic primary voters, for instance, voted for "uncommitted" over Obama in the primary), and Democrats won the early vote by almost the exact same margin -- 51-30 -- in 2008.

Despite the similar margin, Republicans point out that Democrats won by more in the first days of early voting in 2008 than they are this year.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Aaron Blake · October 22, 2012