Early votes are early warning for campaigns; 8 million already cast

A polling place in Fort Worth, Texas.
A polling place in Fort Worth, Texas. MCT

A week before Election Day, more than 8 million people in some 30 states have already voted, a sort of early warning sign to the major parties of states where they’re doing well and where they’re already falling behind.

Besides convenience to voters, early voting provides almost real-time – but somewhat incomplete – snapshots of how some campaigns are faring.

With control of the Senate hinging on 10 too-close-to-call races in states such as Iowa, Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina, the major political parties and their aligned groups are combing over early voting results and scrambling to reach supporters who haven’t cast ballots yet.

“You run a risk if you don’t connect with early voters now,” said Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic strategist. “If you see Republicans are doing better than Democrats, you play catch-up and try to get more Democrats to vote. You know who historically send in their ballots. If they haven’t, you phone them or knock on their door.”

Aggressive outreach is drawing in new voters, as Republicans play catch-up to the Democrats’ early-vote turnout machinery.

In Georgia and North Carolina, for example, about 22 percent of this year’s early voters have no records of voting in the 2010 midterm elections, according to Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science associate professor who compiles early voting data for the United States Elections Project.

“The Republicans have built a vehicle, like a car. Democrats built that car a long time ago,” he said. “The problem is you don’t see them (Republicans) reaching out beyond registered Republicans. They don’t have the data yet, but their goal is to have something working and working well by the 2016 elections. They’re off to a good start.”

In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is running against Republican Thom Tillis, the state’s House speaker. In Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is facing Republican David Perdue.

Early voting has produced mixed results for both parties heading into next Tuesday’s election.

In Iowa, where Republican Joni Ernst and Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley are vying for the open Senate seat created by the impending retirement of Democrat Tom Harkin, Republicans last Wednesday trumpeted figures released by Iowa’s election offices that showed them outpacing Democrats in early votes for the first time in two election cycles.

The Republican lead was 305 votes, small but significant, considering that Democrats led Republicans at this point in 2012 by 56,908 ballots and by 16,426 ballots in 2010. After being outpaced by Democrats in early votes, Republicans nationally have stepped up their efforts with the help of outside groups such as the conservative Americans for Prosperity, which has poured in $125 million to improve conservative-voter turnout efforts.

“We’ve completely revamped our ground game, putting an emphasis on turning out low-propensity voters before Election Day, and it’s working,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said of the Iowa numbers last week. “The Democrats can spin all they want, but they’re in trouble in a blue state.”

But the lead flipped last Thursday and Democrats moved ahead by 463 ballots, McDonald said. Of Iowa’s 306,369 returned ballots, about 41 percent were from Democrats, 40 percent from Republicans and 19 percent from unaffiliated voters, according to the United States Elections Project.

“More Democrats are voting and more nontraditional Democratic votes are coming in, those who don’t vote in midterms,” said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The Republican early-voting push appears to be helping in Colorado’s Senate race, where little daylight separates Democratic Sen. Mark Udall from Republican Rep. Cory Gardner in the polls. Last week, Republicans returned 145,824 mailed ballots to the Democrats’ 105,401 ballots, according to state election officials.

Of the 660,113 overall early votes in Colorado, about 43 percent were cast by Republicans, 32 percent by Democrats and 25 percent by voters the elections project listed as “none or other.” Coloradans exclusively vote by mail.

“Absentee votes by mail has always been a Republican thing,” said Brad Coker, a nonpartisan pollster. “I would attribute some of what’s going on in Colorado to vote by mail. That might be leveling the playing field a little bit. It could be that Republicans are better organized, but it could also be that Republicans are more interested and Democrats are less interested and less motivated.”

Barasky dismissed the Republican lead in Colorado, attributing it to ballots being mailed late to the Democratic-leaning Denver and Boulder areas.

“It’s not surprising that the Republicans started well,” he said. “We expect the election to come our way.”