Who's Really Winning Early Voting?

Who's really winning: Democrats.


Who's leading: Democrats, 48 percent to 32 percent.

How significant: 60 percent voted early in 2008.

The spin: Democrats' early-vote lead in North Carolina certainly looks formidable. But in 2008, Democrats won the North Carolina early vote by an even wider margin, 51 percent to 30 percent, and only carried the state by 14,000 votes -- less than half a percentage point. They can't afford any drop in early voting.

Who's really winning: Republicans.


Who's leading: Democrats, 44 percent to 38 percent

How significant: Two-thirds voted early in 2008.

The spin: Republicans are throwing around all kinds of numbers in Nevada. Fortunately, as a former local reporter in Las Vegas, I am well equipped to evaluate this attempted mystification. The Republicans say they're holding down Democrats' margin in Clark County, the Democratic stronghold that includes Las Vegas and is home to two-thirds of the electorate; narrowing the gap in Reno's Washoe County; and driving up turnout in the sparsely populated rural counties. These claims are all true, but to a small extent in each case. And Democrats can afford a lot of falloff from 2008, when Obama carried the state by 12 points. The bottom line remains that Democrats are winning the early vote, which is most of the vote, in Nevada.

Who's really winning: Democrats.


All these swing states do not register voters by party, so trying to figure out who's voting early is inexact at best. Nor is early voting a huge phenomenon in any of them: Ohio, where 30 percent voted early in 2008, is the biggest early-vote state among them, and Virginia, the smallest, had just 14 percent of the electorate vote absentee in 2008. (Virginia, along with Pennsylvania, doesn't offer "no-fault" absentee voting; you have to have a valid reason for missing Election Day, like travel plans, to get an early ballot.)

For an example of the difficulty of reading early voting in these states, take a look at Ohio. Though all voters are technically unaffiliated, the state tracks them by which party's primary they last participated in. By that metric, Democrats lead the early vote, but by a smaller margin than 2008. It's an iffy metric, though, because there was a Republican but no Democratic presidential primary this year, boosting Republican "registration." Both parties have turned to other measures instead: Democrats say more voters have turned out in the precincts that voted for Obama than those that voted for John McCain four years ago. Republicans counter that the counties that went for McCain are turning out at higher rates than those that went for Obama.

How to sort through all these competing claims? None is conclusive, but the precinct-based metric is probably the closest, since precincts all encompass roughly the same number of voters while counties' population varies widely. (That's why Republicans are winning the county metric: It gives more weight to rural areas, where Republicans are stronger.) The conclusion is also bolstered by public polls that have asked respondents whether they've voted early. Obama led by double-digit margins in eight different polls of Ohio early voters. It's probably safe to conclude that Democrats are winning the early vote in Ohio.

Obama precincts are also outvoting McCain precincts in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Virginia. In Virginia, Republicans point to this breakdown by jurisdiction -- cities and counties -- that shows turnout down by 14 percent in Obama's 2008 strongholds and by just 1 percent in those won by McCain. But in a state where you have to be working or out of town on Election Day to vote early, and early voting was just 15 percent of the 2008 electorate, it's important not to read much into this. One public poll had Romney winning the Virginia early vote by 4 points; another had Obama winning it by 38 points. Probably best to score Virginia a draw -- but with only about 7 percent of votes cast, the real action in the Commonwealth will be on Election Day.


Though voters in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania register by party (Republicans have a registration advantage in the former, Democrats in the latter), the states do not publish early voting totals, and the early vote is not a major factor in either. Just 10 percent voted early in New Hampshire and 4 percent in Pennsylvania in 2008.

* Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Pennsylvania does not register voters by party. We regret the error.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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