There isn’t one presidential-election calendar. There are at least 11—each in a battleground state.
There aren’t 47 days left this campaign. Voting has already begun, and the pace will quicken soon.
Voters in North Carolina (15 electoral votes) have been casting absentee ballots since Sept. 7. Absentee ballots will be available in Wisconsin (10 electoral votes) today and in Virginia (13 electoral votes) on Friday. And Virginians can start in-person early voting on Saturday—the same day that voters in Michigan (16 electoral votes) can send in absentee ballots and begin in-person early voting. In Iowa (six electoral votes), absentee voting and in-person early voting begins on Sept. 27.
That’s 60 swing-state electoral votes in play with active get-out-the-vote efforts mobilized before Oct. 1.
And by Oct. 15—before the second presidential debate—you can add another 65 swing-state electoral votes to the early-ballot mix. Colorado (nine), Florida (29), New Hampshire (four), New Mexico (five), and Ohio (18) will have begun absentee voting. All but Colorado and Florida will also have begun in-person early voting. Nevada (six) will begin absentee balloting on Oct. 17 and in-person early voting on Oct. 20. Wisconsin and Colorado will begin in-person early voting on Oct. 22.
Early voting matters in some ways more than the turnout on Election Day. It gives campaigns extra knowledge. Sophisticated field operations can check early-voting trends, saving time and effort. It helps the campaigns redirect money and staff. In a world of micro-micro-micro-targeted voter outreach/pleading, knowing which supporters have voted when can be the key to victory. It can also help campaigns deflect jagged poll numbers. Voters who have already cast ballots stop answering pollsters, and that can skew survey results. Campaigns that can track this don’t panic.
Mitt Romney’s campaign has high benchmarks for early turnout. His fate may ride on whether his team can boost this turnout, compared to the showing for John McCain in 2008, by 20 percent in Ohio, 18 percent in Florida, 10 percent in Nevada, 9 percent in Wisconsin, and 1 percent in New Hampshire.
Just under 30 percent of all ballots cast in the 2008 presidential election were submitted or filled out before Election Day. Analysts at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission expect that nearly a third of all ballots in the 2012 election will be filled out ahead of time—either through in-person early voting, absentee ballots, or military personnel voting from overseas posts. Almost 17 percent of the vote in 2008 was through mail-in absentee ballots. Thirteen percent came from in-person early voting (doubling the 2004 turnout of 6.4 percent).
And statistics from crucial battleground states are even more revealing. Early and absentee voting accounted for nearly 79 percent of Colorado’s vote, 67 percent of Nevada’s, 62 percent of New Mexico’s, 61 percent of North Carolina’s, 52 percent of Florida’s, 36 percent of Iowa’s, 25 percent of Ohio’s, 21 percent of Wisconsin’s, 20 percent of Michigan’s, and 13 percent of Virginia’s. Those numbers will rise this cycle. Voters prefer the convenience of early voting and the freedom to turn off the TV commercials.
Polling data backs up the Obama and Romney campaigns’ assumptions about increased early and absentee voting.
The recent NBC News /Wall Street Journal polls in Ohio, Virginia, and Florida asked about early-voting intent and found the following:
- In Florida, 31 percent of likely voters said they had already decided to vote early and 23 percent said they hadn’t decided. Only 46 percent of likely Florida voters were certain they would vote on Election Day. According to the Republican National Committee, the party leads Democrats in absentee requests in Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
- In Ohio, 24 percent of likely voters said they were going to vote early and 17 percent were undecided (leaving 58 percent certain they would vote on Election Day). Turning out the early vote is crucial for President Obama to run up a lead if he intends to win Ohio. The highest percentage of early voters—31 percent—reside in the greater Cleveland area. The second-highest concentration—30 percent—reside in Franklin County, home to the capital of Columbus and Ohio State University. Obama won Ohio by 262,224 votes in 2008, and his margins in Cleveland (Cuyahoga County) and Franklin County proved decisive. He won the two counties by 374,765 votes, enough to offset GOP nominee McCain’s showing elsewhere.
- In Virginia, the picture is more muted. Only 9 percent of likely voters said they were certain to vote early or by absentee ballot, while 13 percent were unsure. Among the parties, 11 percent of Democrats, 10 percent of Republicans, and 8 percent of independents said they would vote early. Within this universe of voters, Romney held a 10 percent to 9 percent lead over Obama.
Don’t kid yourself with false narratives about the election being 47 days away. It’s later than you realize.
This article appears in the September 19, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.