Who's Really Winning Early Voting?

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With both parties spinning early-vote totals, here's the bottom line: Republicans are significantly improving on 2008 in several big early-voting states.

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If you're following the presidential election closely, you know that Election Day isn't just Nov. 6 -- in some states, it's been Election Day for weeks. You may also have heard partisans spouting all kinds of statistics about early vote numbers that prove their side is winning.

"If you look at the early voting, in Nevada, Iowa, Florida, Colorado, Ohio -- we feel very, very good about the numbers that we're mounting up in those states," Obama strategist David Axelrod told reporters on a Wednesday conference call. But just a few hours later, Mitt Romney's political director, Rich Beeson, was on another conference call trumpeting the Republicans' early voting edge. "They are underperforming their 2008 numbers and we are overperforming," he crowed, proceeding to lay out the numbers in Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada.

The blizzard of numbers, of claims and counterclaims, can be so daunting it's tempting to just throw up your hands and decide there's no truth to be had, just spin. But an objective analysis of early turnout can provide valuable tea leaves for Election Day. In many states, election officials disclose how many Democrats and Republicans have voted thus far. We don't know who they're voting for, but in most states, this alignment is a good proxy for the candidates. (Then there's the mystery of those voters who aren't affiliated with a party. In polls, independent voters have generally favored Romney, leading his campaign to claim an edge in this category, but for the purposes of analyzing early voting it's impossible to tell.) It's important to consider which party has historically had the early vote advantage -- Democrats, in most states -- and whether early voting makes up a substantial amount of the vote, which varies from state to state.

In 2010, I looked at early voting in 20 states and found early signs of the disproportionate Republican turnout that would define the Tea Party wave. This year, the picture is more mixed, befitting the sort of non-wave election most are expecting. It should shock no one that signs point to a significant dropoff from 2008 for Obama; if Election Day trends hold, he seems likely to lose a handful of states he won four years ago. In particular, the early vote looks promising for Republicans in North Carolina, Florida and Colorado. But early voting in Iowa, Nevada, and (though it's tricky to assess) Ohio still looks strong enough for Democrats.

This analysis isn't conclusive; it's a faint clue at best. But with as much as 40 percent of the nationwide vote likely to have been cast before the polls open on Tuesday, here's what the early vote is telling us so far.

(You can find all these numbers, updated daily, at the invaluable website maintained by George Mason University Professor Michael McDonald. I've listed the states that register voters by party first, followed by the iffier case of those that don't.)

COLORADO

Who's leading the early vote: Republicans, 38 percent to Democrats' 35 percent.

How significant is it: Very. Nearly 80 percent of voters voted early in 2008.

The spin: Democrats say they are leading among "non-midterm voters" who are voting early. But there's no getting around it: Republicans -- who lost the early vote in Colorado by 4 points in 2008 -- are winning it this time, and the early vote is a huge majority of the total vote in this state Obama won by 9 points in 2008.

Who's really winning: Republicans.

FLORIDA

Who's leading the early vote: Democrats, 43 percent to 41 percent.

How significant is it: More than 50 percent voted early in 2008.

The spin: Though Democrats are leading the combined early and absentee vote in Florida, they led it in 2008 by a much greater margin. Their current lead of nearly 60,000 votes is far short of the 280,000-vote lead (and 46-37 margin) they carried into Election Day in 2008. (The dropoff could be a result of the shortening of in-person early voting.) Republicans' share of the early vote, 41 percent, is 5 points higher than their share of voter registration, 36 percent, while Democrats' 43 percent of early voters is just 2 points above their 41 percent voter registration share. In a state Obama won by less than 3 points in 2008, where the majority of votes are early and Republicans tend to win Election Day, any falloff should be concerning for Democrats.

Who's really winning: Republicans.

IOWA

Who's leading: Democrats, 43 percent to 32 percent.

How significant: More than a third voted early in 2008.

The spin: Republicans note that Democrats surged to a 44-point lead in Iowa early votes in late September and have since seen it steadily whittled away. More Iowans of all parties are voting early than ever: Nearly 80,000 more votes have already been cast than 2008's total Iowa early votes. In 2008, Obama's 18-point lead in early voting enabled him to narrowly lose Election Day and still carry Iowa by nearly 10 points. Despite the decline in Democrats' margin, they are still likely have a pretty good cushion going into Nov. 6.

Who's really winning: Democrats.

NORTH CAROLINA

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.

NEVADA

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.

MICHIGAN, OHIO, VIRGINIA, WISCONSIN

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.

NEW HAMPSHIRE & PENNSYLVANIA*

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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