Has Obama Already Won?

Close to 40 million people voted early this year. Was election day over before it even started?

Even before the polls opened this morning, millions had already voted. 31 million, to be exact—a full quarter of 2004’s vote count. In Colorado, 1.7 million voted before today—nearly 80 percent of Colorado’s total vote four years ago. In North Carolina, 75 percent of 2004’s vote had already been cast. In other words, this year signaled a major change in voting behavior: election day is rapidly becoming just the final sprint of a multi-week marathon of voting.

Until very recently, Barack Obama was clearly benefiting from this year’s Democrat-heavy early voting. States like Florida and Iowa were seeing far more Democrats than Republicans cast their ballots early. In Georgia, African-Americans were voting early in numbers disproportionate to their population, presumably tilting the race toward the Democratic candidate.

But a recent shift indicates that McCain may finally be catching up in the early voting race, says Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center.

Until very recently, Obama was clearly benefiting from the Democrat-heavy early voting, but Gronke says that “the recent increase in mail-in absentee ballots is the first positive piece of news I’ve seen for McCain in a week or two.”

There are two ways to vote early: in person or by mail. Democrats tend to vote early in person, and so have grabbed most of the early-voting headlines thus far. But the mail-in ballots that have begun flowing in over the past couple of weeks have been trending Republican. “The recent increase in mail-in absentee ballots is the first positive piece of news I’ve seen for McCain in a week or two,” he says.

He speculates that people who vote by mail tend to be better educated, have a higher income, and have made up their minds about their candidate more firmly—in other words, a more Republican profile. He also thinks Democrats tend to have less trust that their vote will be counted, and that showing up in person might reassure them that their ballot will end up in the right place.

Today’s other silver lining for McCain is that his supporters may outnumber Democrats at some polling stations, if only because so many Democrats have already voted. “I think on election day, the numbers will lean slightly toward McCain,” Gronke says.

At this point, he thinks somewhere between 30 and 40 million people have voted early. He and another early voting expert, George Mason Professor Michael McDonald, have a bet going: “If it ends up being over 40 million I get a bottle of whiskey from him. If it’s under 40 million, he gets one from me.”

Either way, this has been a banner year for early voting, and Gronke believes the sheer volume of early votes portends long, long lines at the polls today.

“Early voting is the early-warning system as the hurricane is coming,” he says, “and this year it looks like a category 5.”