When superstorm Sandy knocked out power in northern Ohio, President Obama’s reelection team in Cleveland carried on its phone banks by candlelight (the joke in Chicago is, “Cuyahoga by Candlelight” is a song title waiting for lyrics and a tune). When more than 75 Obama volunteers were forced to evacuate Hampton Roads, Va., they took over the Omni Hotel in Richmond and worked the phones from conference rooms and the lobby. All this to move voters to the polls early.
The Romney and Obama campaigns are fighting doggedly over early voting in every battleground state—the raw votes and, just as important, the dramatic narrative of perceived momentum that can be fastened to the bone-dry stats. In states such as Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada, the presidential contest may be won or lost before Election Day. Early votes could also tip the scales in Florida and Ohio. Team Obama believes it has a distinct edge in Iowa and Nevada, possibly enough to declare victory before votes are even cast on Tuesday. But Romney’s camp believes that the numbers, such as they are, are decisively breaking its way.
In Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, Team Romney knows it is way outperforming John McCain’s lackluster 2008 effort. Across the battlefield, Romney’s camp contends it doesn’t have to beat Obama in the early vote; it just needs to stay close. Republicans expect Election Day turnout to be decisive. Democrats figure that meeting their 2008 early-vote totals is almost impossible but also unnecessary. They think that Obama can win with less.
Remember, no one actually knows how anyone is voting—just that they are voting and, in some states, which party they are registered with. “You can’t be certain,” David Axelrod, Obama’s chief reelection strategist, said of the preferences of early voters. “We’re as certain as we can be without looking at ballots. Even in Chicago, there are rules against that.”
Still, Romney’s campaign, which relies heavily on the Republican National Committee, insists that it’s banking potentially decisive stores of votes for an upset victory. Citing data from Gallup and the Pew Research Center, the RNC argues that it’s not only well ahead of McCain’s pitiful tallies but also narrowly outperforming Obama. The Pew data show that 19 percent of the nation has already voted and that Romney has a projected lead among these voters of 50 percent to 43 percent. (In 2008, the Pew survey at the same point in the campaign showed Obama ahead by 19 points, 53 percent to 34 percent.)
In Florida, the RNC says that Romney is trailing Obama by fewer than 100,000 in early votes after McCain lost that part of the electorate by 316,000 in ’08. In Ohio, the GOP is running much closer to Obama in the early vote after losing that share by 20 points in ’08. Finally, Romney’s campaign insists that even in places where Obama has a lead in early-vote totals, Chicago is “cannibalizing” its stash of reliable supporters. One example: In Ohio, which doesn’t track early voting by party but counts previous participation, data show that 47 percent of early-voting Democrats cast ballots in at least three of the four previous elections. These are so-called high-propensity voters, and campaigns like to save them for Election Day. The GOP has banked only 37 percent of these in the Buckeye State.
The Obama campaign scoffs at the Gallup and Pew data, saying they are irrelevant next to state-by-state data and polls. In Colorado, data reveal that 22 percent of early Democratic voters don’t vote in midterms. In Florida, Democrats took the lead in early voting after the first two days of in-person early balloting—something it took the Obama campaign six days to achieve in 2008. The Iowa Democratic lead in early voting mirrors the 2008 totals. In Ohio, more than 10 polls show Obama with an early-vote lead, often approaching double digits. In Virginia, statistics indicate higher Obama early-vote totals in counties and precincts he carried in 2008.
For Romney, the closing strategy is built around a strong early-vote push and an undying belief in a sea change in voter sentiments over the campaign’s final days. Even amid state polls showing Romney trailing in key battlegrounds, GOP voters are consistently more enthusiastic. Romney is also closing the yawning gender gap, and is winning or tying on the question of who would better handle the economy. This, Boston believes, is a formula for tectonic shifts in voter sentiment, the kind of earthquake that polling seismologists will miss in hard-fought swing states and, possibly, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
Impossible, Team Obama says. “That’s why [the] early vote is so important,” said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. “These tectonic shifts, if they occur, tend to happen in the final week. And you’re not feeling it now. You’re not seeing it now. Even if you were, we have locked up so many votes.”
Campaign workers in Obama’s headquarters look haggard and spent. Their bloodshot eyes betray the toll of 18 months of poring over data and hyper-analyzing voter preferences, attitudes, and likelihood of casting actual ballots. Messina receives a stack of spreadsheets every morning with line-by-line explanations of voter contacts made by phone, by e-mail, and in person. The data are sifted down to city blocks and, in some cases, clusters of houses on blocks. Obama’s is a cold, bloodless, data-driven operation. It relies on the permanent, predictive power of that data. Messina told National Journal that the only way Obama loses is if everything his campaign knows is wrong.
“Romney’s confidence is based on a sort of preternatural faith that there is a wave out there and it’s going to break,” Axelrod said. “Mine is based on data.”
Data. That was supposed to be Romney’s strong suit and obsession. It may turn out to be Obama’s early-vote advantage. That and phone-banking by candlelight in Cleveland.
This article appeared in print as “Early to Bed.”
This article appears in the November 3, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.