With the presidential contest fluctuating in the polls, both sides are scrambling to bank as many voters as possible in swing states with early voting. And while Democrats have an edge in key battlegrounds, Republicans are looking much improved since the poorly organized 2008 campaign.
This week the RNC is touting its early voting operation in Ohio, where they say they’re gaining momentum after an early burst of Democratic turnout. Spokesman Tim Miller described Democrats’ early vote lead as “collapsing,” citing a significant bump in the percentage of voters whom the state labels “Republican” across key counties. Overall, 36 percent of early votes are listed as “Democrat” versus 29 percent “Republican,” a big shift from the 42-22 Democratic margin for early and absentee voting in 2008.
So pretty impressive — or maybe not.
George Mason University professor Michael McDonald, who researches early voting, said that the closing gap may be much less significant than it looks. That’s because what the state labels “Republican” and “Democratic” voters aren’t necessarily registered Republicans or Democrats. It’s based on which primary they voted in last. In 2008, this meant a giant boost in the party numbers for Democrats, since unaffiliated voters were way more likely to vote in the high-turnout Obama/Clinton slugfest over the Republican primary, which was all but decided and drew few voters overall. In 2012, the tables were turned, with the Republicans holding a competitive primary and Obama running unopposed.
The result: the RNC’s party numbers are “next to meaningless,” McDonald told TPM.
According to McDonald, early voting appears to be at or above 2008 levels across the board in Ohio, but the numbers are evenly distributed across Democratic and Republican enclaves.
“All that I can draw from Ohio is that both campaigns are working their butts off,” McDonald said. “The vote seems to be up across all counties in Ohio. Just because Romney’s doing better than McCain did, which was a hapless campaign, doesn’t mean the Obama campaign can’t also step its efforts up over 2008.”
“It turns out Republicans’ mangled math isn’t limited to a mystery tax cut plan that doesn’t add up,” the Obama campaign’s National Field Director Jeremy Bird wrote in a memo pushing back on the RNC’s boast.
Democrats are making an especially strong early voting push in Ohio and Iowa, a smaller state that’s still critical in many electoral vote scenarios. Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Bruce Springsteen held events this week in both states specifically aimed at encouraging early votes, including directing audience members to polling places right by the concert venues.
Iowa is another state where McDonald sees Democrats holding a strong lead, even if Republicans may be on pace to improve on 2008. As of Friday, the state has taken some 477,000 absentee requests. About 218,000 are from registered Democrats, versus just 147,000 from Republicans.
“Right now the early vote looks to be just slightly more favorable for the GOP than 2008,” McDonald said. But given that Obama won the state handily that year, Republicans may need to step up their game.
North Carolina could be another interesting state in the early voting wars. The Romney campaign pulled out its top communications staff this week, a sign that polls showing the Republican with a narrow lead are enough to convince his campaign that it’s no longer competitive. Democrats may be behind, but the DNC is arguing that the first day of early voting this week, which included a flood of Democrats, is a sign that they may overperform the polls.
“Remember what happened today in North Carolina,” Brad Woodhouse, DNC communications director, told reporters in an e-mail. “Early voting started in North Carolina, which we have a huge advantage in, which propelled the President to victory in 2008.”
Republicans suggest that Democrats’ margins are still on a downward slope. The first day had a big Democratic tilt, outpacing Republicans by a 57-25 margin. But in 2008, that margin was even higher — 64-20 — and Obama only barely squeaked out a victory on election day.
One important feature of North Carolina’s voting laws: anyone can register on-site at the polling place. McDonald suggested that this could have significant implications, since polls’ likely voter screens often leave off respondents who aren’t registered. If Democrats can scrounge up a surprisingly high number of unregistered voters, they might have a better shot than the numbers currently indicate.
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.