In 1994, when Republicans regained control of Congress, only about 35 percent of Americans could vote before Election Day. In 2010, seven in ten Americans enjoy that privilege. If Democrats are able to hold the House, they'll have early voters to thank. Democratic strategists credit the party's sophisticated vote banking strategy with its three special election wins this year.
President Obama's campaign address Tuesday to students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison is, of course, a pitch for enthusiasm. There is some evidence that Democrats are moving from "maybe voters" to likely voters nationally as the reality of what a Republican-controlled House would do sets in ... and after Republican primary voters decided to wage war against the party establishment in Delaware and elsewhere.
But it's also the beginning of a campaign to persuade the Obama Voter to vote early. Organizing for America, the DNC's campaign arm, has put together more than 50 "watch parties" at college campuses around the country. The thinking is that a solid Obama speech could well convince thousands of younger Democrats across the country to cast their ballots now, or to request absentees. The mantra at the DNC and the White House is that the election is today ... and tomorrow ... and next week ... and next month.
On Election Day itself, the DNC can spend time and money on the "knock and drag" -- it will have a pretty good idea, down to the individual voter, of who it needs to turn out in order to be competitive in House districts. Republicans have access to the same technology, but there are doubts within the party about whether the RNC has the metabolism and structures to build votes like the Democrats. Republicans in places like Ohio are just this cycle beginning to focus hard on the early vote. Democrats have been doing this for several cycles.
In several states, parties can figure out quite easily who has voted and who hasn't. No one knows precisely who a person has chosen, but targeting strategists use formulas to guess. Let's assume that seven out of every ten first-time voters who chose Obama will vote Democratic this year if they vote at all. So if Democratic operatives, canvassing a precinct, see that 20 people who fit this category have cast their ballots, they'll assume that they've netted at least eight votes. These formulas tend to be conservative. How would the DNC know that these people voted for Obama in 2008? The party has been tracking these voters religiously for months. Many of them self-report to call-takers.
A good early vote program is both art and science. But Democrats find it undeniably effective, and whatever else the DNC has done since Obama became president, it has kept its lists current. And that means that its Early Vote programs will be formidable.
The White House and the DNC believe that the higher the percentage of ballots cast early, the more of a chance they'll have to limit Republican gains.