With early voting under way in Iowa Thursday, both parties are looking to bank as many votes as possible heading into election day. One method the parties are employing: petitioning to add more voting stations, ideally in places with heavy concentrations of supporters.
Iowa law allows campaigns to submit petitions of at least 100 voters to their county auditor to request extra polling stations where locals can register to vote and cast absentee ballots on site. Dates and locations are flexible, so partisans on both sides are trying to negotiate with local officials for the most effective arrangements: for example, Republicans might try to arrange early voting at an evangelical church on Sunday, while Democrats set up a polling site at a Mexican grocery store on a busy Saturday.
“We have successfully petitioned for hundreds of early voting locations around the state,” Megan Stiles, communications director for the Iowa GOP, told TPM. She added they had put a special emphasis on “churches and community centers.”
On the Democratic side, the Obama campaign’s top priority has been securing voting stations at or around college campuses. For example, on Thursday University of Iowa students could vote at a public library in Johnson County near the main campus. According to the county auditor’s latest available statistics, absentee ballot requests are coming in at a higher rate than in 2008.
“With college students, I’m not even sure they know what a mailbox is, so voting by mail isn’t an option,” Erin Seidler, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign in Iowa, told TPM. “One great thing is you can register on-site as well, so especially for college students and young people, it’s really easy.”
In addition to juicing early voting among students, Seidler said the campaign also had successfully set up early voting stations in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
Democrats are hoping to bank thousands of reliable votes before the tougher work of pulling out less enthusiastic voters on Election Day begins. Based on the early vote turnout in Polk County, Iowa, which is where Des Moines is located — home to one out of every six Democratic votes in Iowa, according to Democrats — that plan seems to be moving along nicely.
“Every election since 1998 since I became the party chair we’ve tried to increase the early vote. And this will set new records as well,” said Tom Henderson, Polk County Democratic Party chair. “The numbers are really exciting … we’re way ahead of our target numbers and we’re exceeding that of 2008.”
Henderson said that before early voting began on Thursday, 28,000 absentee vote applications had poured into election offices in Polk County. In keeping with the registration breakdown there, the majority of the absentee ballot requests came from Democrats: 21,000 from Democratic voters, while just 3,000 came from Republicans. Assuming those votes break down roughly along party lines, Team Obama can celebrate securing a big chunk of votes weeks before Election Day.
Nor is Polk County an exception: Democrats are leading Republicans by a 5-to-1 margin in statewide absentee ballot requests.
Ryan Rhodes, a prominent Tea Party activist in the state, said he believes that the state GOP has made up a lot of ground since 2008, when Democrats dominated early and absentee voting.
“I do think there has been a major catchup from the [RNC and Romney] offices and from the Iowa GOP as a whole over the last couple of years,” Rhodes said. “Surely the Democrats will probably have some sort of small edge, but they’re going to need a large edge. Even in a good Democratic year, they usually get beat on election day.”
His bigger fear is the ad wars: according to numbers provided to TPM by a Democratic source, Obama’s campaign has outspent Romney’s in recent weeks, dropping $1.3 million on TV spots to Romney’s $835k the week of September 24, and $1.6 million to his $496k the previous week. Outside conservative groups are also investing heavily in the state as well, however. Factor their ad buys in, and Republicans closed much of the the gap in the biggest state media markets over the same period.
Evan McMorris-Santoro contributed to this post.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.