Early Voting

It’s Election Month 2012! Early Voting Changes Presidential Landscape

Ben Jacobs on how the Obama and Romney camps are responding to the stretched-out election calendar.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

With the advent of early voting, Election Day has become Election Month in many states—like Noah’s flood, it now lasts for 40 days and 40 nights. And that is forcing both presidential campaigns to play what might be called a hurry-up offense.

The percentage of ballots cast early in a presidential election doubled from 15 percent in 2000 to 30 percent in 2008, and is expected to climb even higher this year. By the time the vice-presidential debate started Thursday, nearly 500,000 Americans had already voted in states that reported data, including more than 119,000 in Ohio and close to 160,000 in Iowa. The change in the voting culture is having a huge impact on every aspect of the election and prompting the Obama and Romney camps to adapt to the vagaries of state election laws.

It’s a crazy-quilt world in which early voting begins at different times and is governed by different rules in each state—presuming that it’s legal. In South Dakota, voters could cast early ballots starting Sept. 21, while early voting does not begin in Maryland until Oct. 27. And 15 states still don’t allow no-excuse early voting, forcing the two campaigns to adjust the most basic aspects of scheduling and tactics on a state-by-state basis.

One clear example of the impact: President Obama made repeated visits to Iowa in September, a state with only six electoral votes but more than a month of early voting. In contrast, he has paid less attention to the crucial battleground state of Virginia, which has 13 electoral votes but no early voting.

The changes have made building strong organizations even more important for the candidates. In 2004, before the introduction of early voting in Ohio, the much-vaunted GOP 72-Hour Program helped deliver the all-important swing state to President George W. Bush. The Republican Party needed to recruit a lot of volunteers and Election Day workers, but it only needed them for a few days. After the 2004 election, however, when Ohio polling places were choked with voters lining up for hours, the legislature passed a bill allowing no-excuse early voting, dramatically changing how Ohioans cast their ballots.

In 2004 about 10 percent of the Ohio electorate voted early, but in 2008 nearly 30 percent cast their ballot before Election Day. Campaigns this cycle need bodies on the ground for weeks before Nov. 6, not just the weekend before. The shift favors the campaign best equipped to put boots on the ground every day, either with paid organizers for the campaign or outside groups, such as labor unions. Considering Obama has twice the number of campaign staffers as Mitt Romney, the incumbent may have a considerable advantage.

Campaigns are, at their most basic level, a list-building exercise. Over months and months, through party registration, canvassing, and a multitude of other means, campaigns build up lists of supporters and try, through voter registration and persuasion, to make that list as long as possible. Then on Election Day, they try to get every identified voter to turn out at the polls. Once someone votes, the name is crossed off, and the list of supporters to turn out becomes that much shorter.

Early voting jump-starts the process by allowing campaigns to start reducing the number of voters to target on Election Day. Sporadic voters can be harassed for weeks, rather than just over a short get-out-the-vote period, increasing their likelihood of turning out. But habitual voters also can be targeted to cast their ballots early, to clear the electoral brush and allow Election Day efforts to focus on those who most need pushing.

“By encouraging our supporters to vote early, we can focus our resources more efficiently on Election Day to make sure those less likely to vote get out to the polls,” says Adam Fetcher, the Obama campaign’s deputy press secretary. The approach is less about rounding up sporadic voters and more about locking down reliable Democrats, he says, allowing the Obama camp to refocus its efforts on encouraging those who have already voted to volunteer on Election Day.

The GOP has refocused its tactics as well, says Kirsten Kukowski, press secretary for the Republican National Committee. “Our ground-game efforts in several battleground states reflect how prevalent early and absentee ballot voting have become while we run traditional operations in other states that still vote on Election Day,” she says. The result: the party has adjusted its calendar in those states that have early voting, ending voter identification programs earlier than in the past and shifting to an absentee ballot focus.

Early voting may alter not only when votes are cast, but also which candidate wins them. By pushing Election Day early, votes are banked before any “October surprise,” such as the Osama bin Laden tape that may have cost John Kerry the 2004 election or the damaging revelation of Bush’s old DWI arrest on the eve of the 2000 election.

The earlier start to Election Day has already swung at least one major election. As one veteran Democratic field operative pointed out, the 2008 Democratic primary continued as long as it did only because of early voting. Hillary Clinton banked votes in California long before primary day, serving as a valuable hedge against Obama’s emergence as the Democratic frontrunner on the eve of the state’s Feb. 5 primary. If California didn’t have early voting, Obama likely would have sewn up the Democratic nomination earlier.

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It isn’t always decisive, though. One prominent Iowa political operative notes that although early voting in his state has major effect on strategic decisions and pushes campaigns to start direct mail by Labor Day, independent voters are still less likely than strong partisans to vote early. Also, early voting tends to peak in the days before the election. As Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University, says, “early voting ramps up and the highest volume of early votes is cast the week before the election.”

Finally, early voting lessens the suspense of Election Day. Of course, pollsters ask voters if they’ve voted early, but hard data are also available. Although ballots are not counted early, the names and voter registrations of those who have already voted are public, giving both voters and campaigns a better idea of trends. As of Oct. 2, for example, more than 53 percent of the early voters in Iowa were Democrats and only 19 percent were Republicans. Such a strong partisan imbalance in the Hawkeye State, if it holds up, bodes ill for Romney and may force the campaign to shift resources elsewhere. As one Republican operative notes, early voting means that “in many states, we’ll have a good idea who won before Election Day.”

The rise of early voting may not be the most exciting recent innovation in campaigns. In an era of the Internet as a message-delivery system and campaign-finance laws as relics, the trend is essentially a question of election administration. But its effects on campaign tactics may, in the end, have a more significant impact than any other change. After all, it is hardly new in politics to have more money and more ways of reaching voters. But it is new to have more election days.