Who's winning the early vote?

In 2008, Barack Obama won the early vote and won it big—by 11 points in battleground states. Banking all those votes before Election Day made John McCain’s already tough road tougher. McCain voters even outperformed Obama voters at the polls on Election Day voting in Colorado, Florida, Iowa and North Carolina, but not enough to make up the margins his opponent had accumulated.


If you believe Team Obama, the same thing’s going to happen in 2012:

By its own determination, Obama’s team believes it will have banked so much early vote in key states as to make Romney’s Election Day vote deficit virtually impossible to make up. Messina contends Romney will need to win by the following percentages on Election Day to overcome Obama’s projected early vote lead: 65 percent in North Carolina; 59 percent in Iowa and Colorado; 58 percent in Nevada; 55 percent in Florida and Ohio and 52 percent in Wisconsin and Virginia.

Despite these fulsome statistics, Messina wouldn’t predict victories yet in any of these states. But he said Obama’s efforts to register 1.8 million new voters (28 percent of whom have voted early – 345,000 in the top six battleground states) and 125 million calls or face-to-to-face interactions with voters will turn the tide for Obama. “Some campaigns believe in quantity over quality when it comes to voter contact,” Messina said. “We do not. This is a people-centered, data-driven effort.”

The question isn’t really who’s winning the early vote, but whether President Obama is winning it by enough to swamp Romney’s early vote operation, which is better than McCain’s, his Election Day turnout, and increased Republican enthusiasm over 2008. Not only was ’08 a particularly good year for Democrats, it was a particularly bad year for Republicans.

The bulk of information on early-vote returns shows Obama winning, but Republicans posting significant gains over their ’08 performance. I tried to keep the information below as current as possible, but some of it comes from Friday, and polls remain open for early voting in Iowa, Ohio, and some Florida counties. Just keep that in mind.

COLORADO: The only early-voting battleground state where early voting has swung from favoring Democrats in ’08 to Republicans in ’12. Republicans now lead Democrats 37-35 percent in a state where more than 1.5 million have voted early, according to the Associated Press. Early voting is expected to make up the bulk of Colorado’s ballots (80 percent in ’08!), so it’s a very good sign Republicans are leading. Obama won early voting by 9 points in ’08.


The Denver Post offers the raw vote totals: “The party breakdown by those who have already voted is: Republicans, 624,788; Democrats, 590,417; and unaffiliated voters, 474,437.”

Obama won Colorado in 2008 by 8.6 percentage points, or 196,658 votes.

The Romney campaign obviously feels very good about Colorado. As Molly Ball writes in The Atlantic:

It should shock no one that signs point to a significant dropoff from 2008 for Obama; if Election Day trends hold, he seems likely to lose a handful of states he won four years ago. In particular, the early vote looks promising for Republicans in North Carolina, Florida and Colorado.

FLORIDA: In the Sunshine State, Republicans have closed a 7-point gap in early voting to a gap of 3.1 percent, according to ABC reporting.

Molly Ball again:

Their current lead of nearly 60,000 votes is far short of the 280,000-vote lead (and 46-37 margin) they carried into Election Day in 2008. (The dropoff could be a result of the shortening of in-person early voting.) Republicans’ share of the early vote, 41 percent, is 5 points higher than their share of voter registration, 36 percent, while Democrats’ 43 percent of early voters is just 2 points above their 41 percent voter registration share. In a state Obama won by less than 3 points in 2008, where the majority of votes are early and Republicans tend to win Election Day, any falloff should be concerning for Democrats.

And, this ominous note for Team Obama from the AP:

The Obama campaign acknowledges it must do better among Florida’s Election Day voters than Obama did on 2008, when McCain won the Election Day vote by 5 percentage points.

In bellwether Hillsborough County, which has chosen the presidential winner with only one miss since 1976, Republicans maintained McCain levels of early vote, at 111,610 Republican early and absentee votes compared with 110,295 in ’08. Democrats on the other hand lost a net 13,961 votes off their ’08 total of 153,615 early and absentee votes. That’s a swing of about 15,000 votes in Republicans’ favor, which amounts to 41 percent of Obama’s margin of victory in the county in ’08.


IOWA: Democrats maintain a significant lead in early voting in the Hawkeye State, but it’s a 10-percent lead as compared to a 27-point lead for Obama in ’08. The total number of early votes is up over ’08 suggesting Republicans are far outperforming the McCain effort.

Four years ago, Obama won the early vote in Iowa by a whopping 27 percentage points, 63 percent to 36 percent. McCain, meanwhile, won the Election Day vote by about 1,800 votes — less than a percentage point. Together, they added up to a 10-point victory for Obama.

But USA Today notes a potential problem for Obama: “40,000 (Democrats) had not returned their mail ballots, compared with 21,000 Republicans.”

Jamie Dupree of Cox Media has more details on Iowa absentee returns and enthusiasm, where Republicans are outdoing Democrats on the return rate:

IOWA ABSENTEE BALLOT RETURNS: Dems 42.2%, GOP 32.1%, Indies 25.6%; 2008 was 46.9% D, 28.9% R & 24.2% indy/other

IOWA ABSENTEES ENTHUSIASM: Dems have sent in 88.4% of their ballots, Republicans 92% and indies/other 85.2%

And, Molly Ball’s bottom line: “Republicans note that Democrats surged to a 44-point lead in Iowa early votes in late September and have since seen it steadily whittled away. More Iowans of all parties are voting early than ever: Nearly 80,000 more votes have already been cast than 2008’s total Iowa early votes.”

Still, a decent margin for Obama.

NEVADA: Democrats lead 44-38. Obama won early voters, which made up more than 2/3 of Nevada’s vote, 59-39 in 2008 and won the state by 12.

Bottom line, from both camps: “The Romney campaign argues that Obama isn’t doing nearly as well among early voters in Nevada as he did in 2008. The Obama campaign argues that it doesn’t have to.”

USA Today:

In order for Romney to win Nevada, he would need to cut into the Democrats’ margins in Clark County, at least tie Washoe County and drive up turnout in rural Nevada, the Republican National Committee notes in a memo. There are signs that all three could happen, but it remains to be seen whether it will be enough.


NORTH CAROLINA: Democrats lead early voting 48-32 percent in 2012, down from a 51-30 lead in 2008. That sounds like a good margin, but keep in mind that McCain’s numbers were so good on Election Day that Obama still only won by fewer than 14,000 votes. In other words, a 21-point lead in early voting led to a .4-percent win for Obama during a historically bad year for Republicans.

OHIO: The Buckeye State is harder to gauge, as voters don’t register by party affiliation. The state does, however, identify which party’s primary they most recently participated in, so you get a decent idea of where a portion of the electorate is aligned. According to those numbers, Republicans have closed a 14-point gap in 2008 to a 6-point gap, 29-23. The stats are better for Republicans than in ’08, but a note of caution: Because the most recent contested primary was a Republican presidential primary, it makes sense you would see more Republican “registrations.” There are plenty of voters who don’t show up as Republican or Democrat, and I’m sure both camps would tell you they’re made up of sporadic or first-time voters their respective sides have succeeded in getting to the polls. No way to tell.

From the Christian Science Monitor:

Compared with this point in time four years ago, fewer Buckeye State Democrats and more Republicans have cast their ballots. The net gain for the GOP is about 200,000 votes, said Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio Monday during an appearance on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

“As compared to 2008, we’re doing better…. I do think the momentum is on our side,” said Senator Portman.

The spin, from both camps:

Messina said the Obama campaign has done a better job getting out sporadic voters, particularly those who did not vote in the midterm elections in 2010. More than 179,000 non-midterm voters from counties Obama won in 2008 have cast ballots, compared with 91,000 from Republican-leaning counties.

Republicans counter that absentee and early voting is 12% higher in counties McCain won than the counties Obama won.


And, Jim Geraghty offers this tidbit on Democrat-heavy Cuyahoga County:

Cuyahoga County saw 2,536 voters Sunday, but that is down almost a thousand from the same day four years ago. In total votes, Cuyahoga County is now 14.7 percent behind where they were four years ago.

Through Sunday, 42,511 Cuyahoga County voters cast ballots early; four years ago, that number was 49,849. In 2008, 4,481 Cuyahoga County voters cast ballots on the Monday before the election.

Michael Barone also pointed to lackluster stats in Cuyahoga as a reason for his prediction for Romney:

Early voting tells another story, and so does the registration decline in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County. In 2004, intensity among rural, small-town, and evangelical voters, undetected by political reporters who don’t mix in such circles, produced a narrow Bush victory.

VIRGINIA: Virginia doesn’t require registration by party, and early voting requires a valid excuse, so a far smaller percentage of the vote comes early/absentee than in other early-vote states—about 14 percent. Total early voting is down compared to 2008, according to the latest numbers from the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman:

The only way to tell who might be gaining or losing is to tally early vote totals compared to ’08 in McCain counties vs. Obama counties. Last week, this metric showed Obama losing ground while Republicans stayed at ’08 levels. Wasserman is now tallying the final early vote count by locality, so I’ll have an update on that.

WISCONSIN: There is also no party registration in Wisconsin, but in a state constantly in election mode for the past three years, there are plenty of indicators. Ben Domenech, writing in The Transom, looks at one:


…shocking early vote numbers from the state, which really do indicate an Obama machine which has failed to deliver an advantage for the president in a state that’s gone blue in six consecutive presidential elections.

Here’s a few of those early vote numbers which stand out: One of the first signs of trouble for the Democrats during the Walker recall was when Dane County, which has about a 110k population advantage on Waukesha county and includes blue-dominated Madison and the University of Wisconsin campus, had only about a 2k advantage in early voting and absentees. Democrats later claimed the surprisingly close number was due to a lack of college kids in Madison.

As of the latest update from Wisconsin early voting, the gap between Dane and Waukesha is once again 2k. But that’s with a massive increase in the overall vote, meaning the gap is even less statistically significant than before. So here’s the big question for Wisconsin Democrats: where are your college kids? What happened to them? Why do you have to send Katy Perry to Milwaukee this weekend and Bruce Springsteen to Madison on Monday in the hopes of getting them out?

A Springsteen event in Madison drew 80,000 in ’04 for Kerry. It drew 18,000 for Obama today.

Pennsylvania and New Hampshire do a little early voting, but they don’t offer early-voting data.

Update: The final update from The Washington Post on early voting:

In basically every state where we have good data available, Democrats performed worse than they did in 2008 but better than they did in 2010. And if you extrapolate the shift to the entire statewide vote, we’ve got a very close race in store…

In basically every state, Democrats’ early vote edge is between four and eight points less than it was in 2008. Given that Obama won the popular vote in 2008 by about seven points, that would suggest a margin-of-error race.


So, early voting— a historically heavily Democratic metric— ended up with a turnout somewhere between ’08 and ’10 models. Yet many of the nationwide and battleground polls have Obama winning thanks to a turnout that looks very similar to ’08 or even better for Democrats.

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David Strom 5:30 PM | June 18, 2024