Political junkies and undecided voters may have Nov. 6 circled on their calendars in red ink, but in reality, the 2012 election is not 99 days away. Early voting will start as soon as September in some states.
From in-person at designated polling places to absentee that requires no justification, early voting is becoming increasingly popular and accessible across the country. Election experts estimate that a record 40 percent of 2012 voters could cast their ballots before Election Day, up from 33 percent in 2008. Both campaigns eyeing a jubilant November are taking note.
The Obama campaign has some practice in this arena. With significantly more resources at its disposal than rival John McCain in 2008, it made banking early votes a top priority and deployed some smart campaign tactics to that end. Of those who cast early ballots in 2008, 58 percent favored Obama, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken just before Election Day, versus McCain’s 40 percent.
Obama and his surrogates strategically scheduled events near early-voting locations so supporters could easily be herded or driven to those sites. Rally attendees who wore “I Voted” stickers got preferential seating. In addition, the Obama campaign diligently compared the early voter rolls provided by some states and localities with their own lists of supporters so they could devote time and resources only to people they hadn’t yet snagged.
The national trend was corroborated in key swing states, according to data compiled by Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at George Mason University and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Early voters who identified as Democrats in Florida, for example, outnumbered Republicans 45 to 37 percent. In traditionally conservative North Carolina, the imbalance was even more striking, with 51 percent of early voters identifying themselves as Democrats versus 30 percent as Republicans.
And although few states offer demographic breakdowns of early voters, an analysis by the nonprofit liberal group Democracy Corps found that African-Americans and other strong Obama supporters were a larger share of the early vote than the vote on Election Day.
In 2012, voters will be able to cast their ballots early in person in 32 states, while 27 will offer no-excuse absentee voting. Election calendars are still being finalized, but if states hew to their schedules from 2010, some could begin voting as early as mid-September. By the end of that month, voters in the key swing state of Iowa will be casting early ballots.
Don’t expect the Romney campaign to be nearly as outgunned as McCain was four years ago. “It’s not clear that it advantages either party as a partisan thing per se,” said political scientist Christopher Mann of the University of Miami, a former Democratic consultant. “It advantages the party that is more organized and more committed to taking advantage of the alternative methods of voting available.”
In fact, before 2008, early voters, particularly those who used mail ballots, tended to be older, whiter, and more affluent—that is, they fit the profile of a Republican voter. The George W. Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004 were considered the models of pre-Election Day voting.
If one needs evidence that the Romney campaign is on to this strategy, look to the never-ending GOP primaries earlier this year. Thanks to meticulous early-voting efforts, the Romney campaign built up insurmountable leads against rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in states like Florida, Michigan, Arizona, and Ohio.
Brett Doster, a Romney adviser in Florida, said the primaries were a good test run for the techniques that the Romney campaign will deploy in the fall. “It’s no secret both the Romney campaign and the Obama campaign will be working very, very hard to target those early votes,” he said. “I feel very confident that the plan the Romney team has in place is going to be executed with a great deal of precision.”
Add to that the fact that Republicans will decidedly not be hurting for cash this time around, with Crossroads GPS and other Romney-aligned super PACS pitching in with voter mobilization, and it's clear that this is a different rodeo. “In 2008, Republicans had an enthusiasm gap and McCain had a scarcity of resources compared to Obama. Those things aren’t going to exist this time,” McDonald said. “I expect more parity in the early voting in 2012 than we saw in 2008.”
“Politics is a copycat game,” added Tom Eldon, a Democratic pollster in Florida. “As soon as one team finds out a good way to do things, the other team is going to copy it.”
Perhaps because early voting broke records in 2008 and Obama was the clear beneficiary, some Democrats are convinced it matters more to them than to the Republican ticket. They consider it especially crucial to the participation of people with more than one job, jobs that involve shift work, or other factors that make it hard for them to get to the polls within a designated window on Election Day.
Recent changes made by Republican governors and legislatures suggests they agree with the idea that early voting gives Democrats an edge. In Florida, for example, a sweeping election law shortened the early-voting period from 14 days to eight. In Ohio, early voting was eliminated the weekend before Election Day -- a development so disconcerting for Democrats that the Obama campaign has sued the state to restore the final three days.
“93,000 voters are what this is about,” said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, referring to the number of voters in the Buckeye State who cast their ballots the weekend before Election Day in 2008. “Democrats have done a better job organizing and moving our people to the polls. If you can’t win an election the right way, the Republicans are going to try to win it the wrong away.”
The politics of early voting are likely to look a little different next year if the Romney campaign turns out floods of early voters this fall. “I’d be willing to lay a bet that if Romney wins, the state legislative politics will flip on their head,” Mann said.