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Democrats bank on early voting to bridge enthusiasm gap

The 2010 election brought scores of tea party-backed candidates into Washington.

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By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 12:33 AM

LAS VEGAS - Walter Grimsley woke up Saturday morning and remembered he had an errand to run. He had to go vote.

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The government retiree's phone had been ringing every few hours with reminder calls from Democratic volunteers. Canvassing teams appeared at his door at least 10 times. At a voting booth set up next to the produce section of his neighborhood grocery store, Grimsley cast his ballot for Sen. Harry M. Reid and the rest of the Democratic ticket, just as he had always intended.

The way the Democrats see it, it is worth all of the effort to lock in surefire voters like Grimsley as early as possible. He is one more supporter they don't have to worry about pushing to the polls Nov. 2. That frees up party operatives to badger reluctant voters who need even more coaxing and who are crucial to saving Reid and other imperiled Democrats in the House and Senate.

There's something in it for Grimsley, too. "Now the phone calls will stop," he said.

Democrats across the country know they face a daunting enthusiasm gap that veteran politicians such as Reid can't possibly overcome. What they can do is try to outperform their Republican opponents by taking advantage of the longer window to get folks to the polls.

Election analysts expect more people to cast early ballots this year than in any previous midterm election. A decade ago, early voting was an obscure practice allowed in just a handful of states. This year, the District and 32 states, including Maryland, allow some form of early voting.

Transforming campaigns

Increasingly, states are making it easier for people to vote early, allowing "no excuse" mail-in ballots and automatically sending ballots to voters who voted by mail in the past. Overall, 30 percent or more of voters could make their choices before Election Day, experts predict. In some states that make early voting especially easy - such as Nevada, where voting booths can be found in health clubs, libraries, supermarkets and shopping malls - it could be much higher. In the last election, 60 percent of Nevadans voted early.

The practice has transformed the way candidates plan the final weeks of their campaigns. The usual barrage of big-name endorsements and negative ads has come much earlier, as campaigns are trying to capture the attention of early voters before it's too late.

In Nevada, GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle canceled her second debate with Reid, saying it wasn't worth the effort since it was set to take place after polls had opened.

It's not clear which party will benefit most from early voting this year, given how much the political landscape has changed since 2008, when Barack Obama's campaign established it as an essential campaign tool. But Democrats more than Republicans are counting on early votes to give them an edge in an otherwise lackluster election season.

The Democratic National Committee has committed $30 million to turning out Obama supporters who might otherwise take a pass on a midterm election. That's on top of spending by state parties and individual Democratic candidates.

The GOP hasn't made a similar coordinated effort, but it may not need to. Preliminary returns from key early-voting states suggest that Democrats are outpacing Republicans, or at least holding their own, in initial returns in some key states. Two large Democratic counties in Ohio have reported a surge in early ballots.


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