By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; A4
In an election year when good news has been scarce for Democrats, anxious party strategists are heartened by at least one development: In states that have started voting, early indications are that Democratic turnout could be stronger than expected.
Despite the much-discussed "enthusiasm gap," early balloting suggests that the voter turnout engine that Barack Obama revved up in 2008 has not sputtered out entirely, according to the Atlas Project, a Democratic consulting firm that analyzed voter data.
The firm told its clients Friday that early ballots in the 17 states where voting has been sufficient to draw historical comparisons show a partisan balance that looks very much like that in 2006, the year Democrats took back the House and the Senate.
"In many states, it even appears that the electorate so far is a little more Democratic than in 2006, although it is still early in the early voting process," reported the firm, which was founded by Mary Beth Cahill, manager of John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, and Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for the AFL-CIO. "Further, in some states like Georgia, Florida, Michigan and North Carolina, African Americans in particular seem to be making up a greater proportion of early voters at this point than in 2006."
Outside analysts are seeing much the same. "Democrats are not voting at as high rates as they did in 2008, but they are voting at higher rates [than Republicans] in early voting," said Michael McDonald, a George Mason University associate professor who specializes in voter behavior.
All 50 states have sent out absentee ballots. And in 29 of them, in-person early voting is also underway.
While it is impossible to tell for whom early voters are casting their ballots, most states disclose who has voted. Both parties carefully monitor this information so they know where to target their efforts. The Atlas Project analyzed the early voters' party affiliations, demographic profiles and other factors to assess each party's turnout efforts.
Republicans - who are expected to make big gains in Congress - say they are neither surprised nor alarmed at what they are seeing. Democrats have surpassed them in recent cycles at turning out early voters, and Obama is holding a series of rallies across the country aimed at re-energizing those who cast their ballots for him two years ago.
"They've probably gotten their partisans to the polls. I would take small solace in that if I were them," said Joe Gaylord, who was Newt Gingrich's chief political strategist when Gingrich (Ga.) engineered the Republican takeover of the House in 1994.
The tallies don't show how independent voters are leaning or how much crossover voting is going on.
"In 1994, there was a flip to the Republicans. In 2006, there was a flip to the Democrats," said pollster David Winston, who advises House Republicans. "Both of these flips were driven by independents, and that's likely to be the case here, if it occurs."
How well the two parties are doing at turning out early voters varies from state to state.
In California, the Atlas Project's analysis suggests that Democrats account for 42.9 percent of the more than 1 million ballots cast thus far, which means they are running slightly ahead of the 41.4 percent they got in 2006. By comparison, Republicans have cast an estimated 39.7 percent of the early California ballots, which is down slightly from the 40.9 percent they got four years ago.
However, Republicans in California note that Democratic registration overall has grown dramatically in the state. Democrats now have a 13-point edge, which is five points more than it was four years ago.
And Mark DiCamillo, director the nonpartisan California Field Poll, noted that the state's early voters are heavily concentrated in the liberal San Francisco Bay area. He said nearly three-quarters of the voters in Santa Clara County have requested mail-in ballots, compared with 21 percent in Los Angeles County.
In Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid is fighting to hold on to his seat, Democrats appear to have slightly strengthened their early-voting edge from four years ago. The same is true in Michigan, where the proportion of early voters who are African American has increased from 8.2 percent in 2006 to 11 percent so far in 2010, according to Atlas Project figures.
In some states, including Florida and Iowa, Democrats continue to vote early in greater numbers than Republicans, but that advantage is slightly less than it was in 2006.
The firm reported that one state where Republicans appear to be doing well is Arizona, the scene of a monumental battle over illegal immigration. The Democratic share of early ballots in that state has dropped by 6.5 percent, and the Republican share has grown by 2.3 percent.