ALREADY AHEAD

10.26.12

Democrats Showing Momentum in Early Voting

As the president cast a first-ever pre-Election Day ballot, early voting experts say the returns to date show signs of Democratic momentum. James Warren reports.

President Obama joined a surge in hometown voters casting an early election ballot Thursday, trekking to an austere Chicago community center where the waiting-room seats are now off limits after becoming a hangout for drug dealers. The surge, if not the center, should be reassuring.

Early voting nationally appears to be on the rise compared to the 2008 campaign, in which about one-third of all ballots were cast before Election Day. That’s notable since the conventional wisdom among many election officials and political scientists has been that we were not likely to seeing very big early turnouts this year due to a lack of enthusiasm in the race, especially among Democrats.

There are signs that the experts were wrong. In Cook County, where Chicago is located, there were 95,000 ballots cast through Wednesday, or the first three days of early voting. That compares to 67,000 in 2008 during the same period. Nationwide, about seven million votes have been cast.

Illinois is a decidedly blue state and, an array of factors, to be sure, are at play: the convenience of early voting this time out, people having their minds made up, and the notion of casting a ballot in advance of Election Day seeming less exotic than it might have four years ago. But it also appears that, as one Chicago election official put it, “excitement is building” for Obama. It also suggests that reports of a significant softening of African-American support for the president may prove to have been exaggerated.

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Similarly, Iowa and North Carolina provide cause for the Obama campaign being optimistic. Unlike Illinois, where people do not vote by party, they do in those states and Democrats are out to substantial leads over Republican voters. In Iowa, the lead is about 60,000, while it’s about 170,000 in North Carolina. If those are hints of things to come, there is reason for Mitt Romney’s camp to be anxious.

“The Democratic enthusiasm in those two states exceeds 2008” when it comes to early voting, said Paul Gronke, an early-voting expert who teaches political science at Reed College.

“Overall, there are a number of states seeing bigger earlier numbers than many scholars and clerks expected,” he said, conceding that there’s insufficient data at this point to assess early voting patterns in a majority of states, including the likes of Ohio and Florida.

The early results that have surfaced also suggest that another piece of early campaign year wisdom that might prove to have been off the mark; namely that the Obama campaign was spending too much money too early.

That was a view not just of smart opponents, like Republican political consultant Karl Rove, who warned of the Obama camp’s high “burn rate” in early spending. It was also the view of some Democrats who disputed huge outlays for field operations.

“The Democratic enthusiasm in [Iowa and North Carolina] exceeds 2008” when it comes to early voting, said Paul Gronke, who teaches political science at Reed College.

For example, the Obama campaign has 62 campaign offices through Colorado, where perhaps 80 percent of votes will be cast early, including by absentee ballots. By comparison, Romney has 14, though his campaign cites what it says is an impressive 300,000 actual contacts with prospective voters (the Obama camp does not release such figures). In all, Obama has about 800 field offices nationwide, compared to about 300 for Romney.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and others in the Romney camp have downplayed those brick and mortar advantages, asserting that the GOP nominee has held his own with phone calls and actual contacts with voters. But the Romney campaign’s claim of about 120,000 active volunteers since the spring might be compared to the 1.5 million Obama claimed in 2008 (again, his campaign won’t divulge current figures).

In an age of social media, where both campaigns also have extraordinary computer data banks concerning their target voters, including “whether they own a cat or what gas they buy,” as Gronke put it, there is also the old-fashioned, precinct-by-precinct age of knocking on doors and cajoling.

Obama obviously had a significant time to build his campaign infrastructure before Romney even knew he was his party’s nominee. That means that Romney will of necessity have to revert to the more traditional gambit of “putting a lot of eggs in one basket, “as Gronke termed it, via a big push in the last several days.

As for Obama himself, he voted at the Martin Luther King Community Center, a rather dreary South Side satellite office of the Chicago Department of Social Services. Far larger numbers than in the past have been there to vote since early voting started Monday, said Will Burns, alderman of the ward where the Obamas have their home.

“In the past, the numbers just build over days. This year, they’ve been big from the start,” he said.