With lots of early votes starting to roll in across several swing states, Republicans continue to trail but are now in a slightly better position among early voters than they were in 2008.
Democrats built a lead early this month among early voters -- in Iowa and Ohio in particular. But Mitt Romney's momentum in the presidential race, combined with increased voter contacts by Republicans, appear to have him on pace to perform better on the early vote than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did in 2008.
The question from there is whether his improvement is good enough.
After all, Obama won the 2008 popular vote by more than seven points. So in order to level the playing field, Republicans will want to significantly improve on their 2008 early vote performance rather than simply exceed it by a point or two.
Can they do that? It's too early to say with any certainty. But here's what we're seeing to date in each swing state.
(And a big thanks to Michael McDonald's United States Elections Project for much of the data used in the chart above and in this post.)
This is the state where early voting is very important, given that 70 percent or more of Nevadans appear likely to cast their ballots early. If turnout in 2012 is about like it was in 2008, then that means one-third of voters in Nevada have already cast their ballots. In other words, the numbers below mean a lot.
The ballgame here is really Clark County, where about three-fourths of voters reside. Jon Ralston notes that, halfway through early voting in the state, Democrats are slightly off their 2008 pace:
With a week to go, that would put the Democrats about halfway to the lead they had in 2008 -- 83,000. I don't think they will get there, but they don't have to. Obama won the state by 12 points (Clark by 19) with that lead. All he needs to do is be in double digits in Clark, and he will win Nevada unless there is a landslide in Washoe, which does not appear to be happening (there were no numbers posted for Washoe as I write this).
Democrats currently lead by 17 percentage points in Clark County and 9 percentage points statewide.
In addition, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of the state shows Obama leading 53 percent to 45 percent among those who have voted early.
Given that 8-9 percent seems to be the operable margin here, let's say Obama won the early vote by 8 percent, and 70 percent of voters cast early ballots. In that case, Romney would need to take about 60 percent of the vote on Election Day in order to eclipse his early-vote deficit.
In other words, Nevada is looking pretty good for Democrats.
Republicans, though, note that Democrats had a much bigger lead in Clark County at this point in 2008. So we'll have to see if the margin holds over the next week.
Republicans continue to steadily chip away at Democrats' big early lead in early voting. While the spread was once 60 percent Democratic to 22 percent Republican, it's now down to 45 percent Democratic and 32 percent Republican.
That 13-point spread is less than Democrats' 18-point margin from 2008.
Given Democrats in 2008 carried the early vote by 18 points, and Obama carried the state by 10 points, the GOP would probably be well-served to reduce its early vote deficit to single digits. And they've got a chance to do that.
Early voting turnout so far is 27 percent of the state's entire 2008 turnout, meaning about a quarter of likely voters have already cast ballots.
The spin on early voting here continues to fascinate The Fix. There is no traditional party registration, so we need to look for other clues.
Democrats have long pointed out that 53 or 54 percent of early votes have been cast in precincts that Obama won in 2008, but Republicans are now noting that, if you look at precincts the 2010 race between now-Gov. John Kasich (R) and former governor Ted Strickland (D), Kasich precincts account for about 55 percent of the early vote.
(This strikes us a fair counter-argument. Obama carried the state by five points while Kasich won it by two. Clearly there are plenty of precincts that barely voted for Obama and barely voted for Kasich.)
Polls this week, though, show a big Democratic advantage in the early vote. Obama led the early vote by 30 points in a new Time poll, 29 points in an automated SurveyUSA poll and 26 points in an automated Purple Strategies poll. A Suffolk University poll, which is a little older and has a smaller early voter sample than the others, showed Obama winning the early vote by 13 points.
A new CNN poll Friday, meanwhile, shows Obama winning by 21 points among early voters, but that sample includes those who say they will vote early, not just those who already have.
Despite that apparent early vote advantage, though, all of these polls show a very close race, between tied and a five-point Obama lead.
So far, early voting has accounted for about 17 percent of the vote, according to 2008 turnout figures.
At this point, Democrats have accounted for 50 percent of early voters, while Republicans have accounted for 31 percent.
That 19-point margin is slightly down from the 21-point margin Democrats had in 2008. Republicans also note that, at this point in 2008, Democrats led by significantly more than their final margin.
Democrats carried the early vote by 21 points in 2008 and won the state overall by less than 1 percent. So any improvement on the early vote would probably be good for Republicans, and the more the merrier in a state they are counting on winning.
There's little change here. With in-person early voting set to open Saturday, Republicans are winning on absentee ballots 45 percent to 39 percent.
A comparison to 2008 here is tough. Republicans won absentees by double digits four years ago, but with in-person early voting cut from 14 to eight days this year, Democrats have invested much more in getting early voters to vote absentee instead.
Absentee turnout is about 12 percent of total 2008 turnout so far, so a significant number of absentee ballots have been cast.
But adding in-person early voting, starting this weekend, will tell the bigger story here.
Republicans lead the early vote 39 percent to 37 percent after losing it by two points in 2008. They also trailed by a bigger margin at this point in the process four years ago.
Given the fact that Obama carried the state by nine points in 2008, Republicans will probably want to extend their early vote advantage. But polls here are encouraging for Republicans, with an NBC News/Marist College poll this week showing the race tied at 48 percent.
The Purple Poll shows Obama winning 50 percent of the early vote and Romney winning 44 percent.
The number of early voters so far is more than one-quarter of the state's 2008 turnout. Nearly four in five voters voted early in 2008, making the early vote here bigger than any other swing state.
Like Ohio, Virginia doesn't have party registration, which means we look to anecdotal evidence and polls. In addition, it doesn't have no-excuse in-person early voting, which means we're looking at significantly fewer early ballots cast.
Republicans point to low turnout in traditionally strong Democratic areas (David Wasserman has a great county-by-county breakdown showing depressed turnout in heavily Democratic Arlington County, Richmond City and Charlottesville City), while Democrats note that precincts Obama won account for 54 percent of the vote.
The Purple Poll shows a tight early vote race, with Romney at 51 percent and Obama at 47 percent. But it's very early here, with just 5 percent of the 2008 turnout having cast early votes so far.