It’s Election Day in Iowa, and it has been for weeks.
Recent polling in the state shows Republican Mitt Romney quickly closing the gap in the presidential race, but that may be less and less important with every day that passes. Political watchers say President Obama has been successful this year at getting his supporters to take advantage of Iowa’s early voting system and that likely has given him a head start at a time when he still leads in the polls.
Pollster Ann Selzer, who runs the respected Des Moines Register survey, said there are signs that Iowans who have already cast a ballot are leaning heavily toward Obama.
“Two-to-one, people who say they have already voted are Barack Obama supporters,” Selzer told TPM. “The majority of people who plan to vote early are Barack Obama supporters. The majority of people who plan to vote on election day, Romney supporters. I think that’s what’s gets tricky — you have to have a huge margin on election day to offset the Democrats.”
Early voting in Iowa began on Sept. 27, and already nearly 520,000 people requested early ballots, according to elections officials. Of those, some 347,000 had filled out and returned them as of Oct. 22.
In 2008, a little more than 1.5 million people voted in Iowa and the state’s six electoral votes went to Obama by a solid 9.5 points. Few expect that sort of margin this time around, and polling throughout the summer suggested the state might be one of Romney’s best pick-up opportunities.
“I think that [Romney’s] early showing has a lot to do with there being a Republican caucus and nothing happening on the Democratic side,” Selzer said. “You had a lot of Republican messages in this state, a lot of ‘Fire Barack Obama’ messages. … So that had a lasting impact.”
As the summer faded, Obama started to tick up in the state in September and October, even though current polling has been mixed.
“The reason Obama became stronger is two things — first of all there are economic signals that things are getting better, and that became a little hard to ignore … and I think Obama has in place a stronger ground game, and that is starting to pick up,” Selzer said. “So all of the people that he had in place from four years ago, a lot of that infrastructure is still there. Romney sat out Iowa, really, and has chosen to have less presence in terms of a ground game … and in Iowa, with so much early voting, that ground game is really critical.”
And that could make all the difference in the state. Polls of late have been more cloudy — President Obama held a solid 8-point lead in a NBC News/Marist College poll released Thursday, but Romney was up 49 percent to Obama’s 48 percent in a survey from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling the day after. But among early voters — a solid 34 percent of the NBC/Marist sample and 31 percent those polled by PPP — two-thirds had already cast their ballots for the president, with a third going for Romney.
Overall, the PollTracker Average of Iowa shows Obama with a small lead.
“When likely voters intend to cast their ballot tells us a lot about what is happening in Iowa,” Lee M. Miringoff, director of The Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, said in a statement, citing the Obama advantage among early voters. “In contrast, Romney leads by double digits with those who will vote on Election Day.”
That means a key for the Obama campaign will be to overwhelm the Republican ticket before Nov. 6 so that Election Day becomes somewhat a foregone conclusion.
Selzer pointed the youth vote. During the last month, President Obama, Vice President Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama have all campaigned on college campuses with an early voting station set up nearby. That allows the campaign to point supporters directly to the place where they can drop off their ballots before the buzz of the rally wears off.
Selzer said that kind of push could send early voter turnout to huge levels this year. Thirty-two percent of Iowa voters cast their ballots early in 2008 and 35 percent did in 2010. The question this year is whether it will approach 50 percent.
“If it’s half, that will be jaw-dropping,” Selzer said. “But it feels within the realm of possibility.”
Ed. note: The post has been updated to reflect that the NBC/Marist and PPP polls showed two-thirds of early voters, not likely voters, had already cast their ballots for Obama.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.