Why Election Day no longer matters

October 26, 2012

There is no Election Day in America anymore.

By failing to understand this fact, much of today’s political chatter is based on an obsolete view of the presidential race.

Until recently, of course, elections did occur on a single day. Nine out of 10 people cast their votes on the first Tuesday in November 2000. Now, one out of three Americans vote early, with even higher turnout in the decisive swing states. In 2008, a majority of citizens voted early in 10 states. Those trends continue today.

This is a fairly sudden and radical shift in how we pick our president.

Early voting shortens the race, locking in voter preferences long before big events, like the debates, are even finished. It also reduces the effects of late-breaking developments, from last-ditch October Surprises to unpredictable incidents, such as the video that Osama bin Laden released days before the 2004 election.

This dynamic inverts one iron law of campaigns – that nothing is more important than how a candidate closes. In many states, the candidates can now build a commanding lead long before the end of the race. In Ohio, early voting is cementing a lead that President Barack Obama built weeks ago, before the race began to tighten. If Republican nominee Mitt Romney loses, his biggest regret may be failing to push for summer debates.

At the same time, however, the surge in early voting ensures that a very traditional political battle, the ground game, is more important than ever. In half the states, the period for mobilizing voters is now literally 10 times longer than the old days. Voting starts as early as September in some states.

These features of early voting give a boost to campaigns that stake out an early lead and build a strong field program.

Today, both those factors suggest an edge for Obama.

Obama’s first presidential campaign organized the largest supporter list in U.S. history – more than 14 million people on email and text message lists, plus tens of millions more who opted in through social networks like Facebook.

This year, the Obama campaign has doubled down on its ground game. The president opened 800 field offices nationwide, while Romney has just 300 and his campaign outsourced turnout to the Republican National Committee. (By setting up “hundreds” of field offices, Obama boosted his 2008 vote total by more than 3 points in some states, according to one study.)

Obama is also the first incumbent president to regularly use his field supporters during the off-season, pressing members of his issue-based “Organizing for America” to work on behalf of his domestic agenda. Now the campaign is pushing those same people toward early voting.

The efforts range from symbolic – this month Obama was the first president to ever cast an early vote, an effort to mainstream the practice – to the quantifiable, like Obama’s 165,000-ballot edge in Democratic ballots in Iowa, Nevada and North Carolina.

In Ohio, where early votes are not tracked by registration, the Obama campaign has built a 43,000-ballot lead in precincts that he won last cycle.  Ohio Republicans even tried to shut down early voting the weekend before the election, which the Supreme Court unanimously rebuffed last week.

“We’re winning early vote in the battleground states that will decide this election,” says Obama spokesman Adam Fetcher.  According to the figures released by key states, he told me, the campaign is also beating its own “early vote margins” from the 2008 victory.

Romney aides offer two rebuttals on this score – one valid, and the other spin.

Early voting numbers are based on party registration, and Republicans protest that just because voters registered as a Democrat once, that does not mean they are Obamabots today. True. If only there were some way to find out what people are doing with their speedy ballots!

As it happens, when people who already voted are surveyed, Obama has a staggering edge. His lead among early voters is up to 30 points in Ohio – where one out of five voters have already turned out – and 35 points in Iowa.

So the only mathematical way Romney can win those states is by drawing far more votes on Election Day, to make up for his current deficit.  Among Iowa voters who plan to vote on Election Day, for example, polls show Romney with a 15-point lead. Romney supporters will vote “on Election Day, for the most part,” the campaign’s political director predicted on Thursday.

The other Republican counterpoint is absentee voting, where the GOP typically fares better.

“In Florida, 46 percent of absentee ballots returned by September’s end came from Republicans,” crows Karl Rove, while only 38 percent came from Democrats.  That is a big gap in a tight state. In-person early voting does not begin in Florida until this weekend, however, and Obama’s early voting program outdid absentees last cycle.

A big reason for this stark contrast is the type of voters who use each method.

While absentee voters tend to be proactive – they are basically recurring voters who request an absentee ballot – the early voting universe includes people who are less likely to vote when the option is compressed into a single day. That includes younger and poorer voters, the politically disengaged and people with long or odd work schedules.

“Early vote isn’t [about] taking a finite number of voters and only changing the day they vote,” stresses Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager. Instead, he explained in a media conference call on Tuesday, it provides time to mobilize “sporadic voters” who might otherwise fail to turn out at all. For Team Obama, early voting is not just time management for people who are already engaged; it is about fundamentally expanding the electorate.

In the end, all these big shifts in voter turnout could make the denouement of this year’s campaign look a little bizarre. Political junkies and reporters are still Talmudically parsing a battery of national polls, which ask people in irrelevant states how they plan to vote next month, and the political class spends the remainder of its time on debates, Super PACS and the money gushing into TV advertising.

Meanwhile, the real action is already going down in the field, since half of swing state voters could effectively decide the race before November 6.  In fact, that’s what the president is betting on.

The traditional Election-Day electorate, by contrast, is on track to favor Republicans two cycles in a row.

If these trends hold and help re-elect Obama, look for the next battle over American democracy to move from voter ID to early voting — following the tack of Ohio Republicans this year.

That is one iron law of politics that hasn’t changed: The party trying to suppress voting is usually the one that’s losing.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama receives aid as he casts his vote early at the Martin Luther King Community Center in Chicago, Illinois October 25, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


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If early ballots are truly not counted until election day these candidates can only speculate who is actually winning the election. I am a registered democrat because I’ve just never bothered to change it, but I will not be voting for the democratic candidate. So I’m sorry Mr. Obama. If you want to assume my vote is automatically for you based on my registered party, assume away. Come November you might be surprised.

Posted by WMerry | Report as abusive

Let’s not even mention the fact that Ohio absentee ballots won’t be counted until November 17.

Posted by dill16078 | Report as abusive

For folks outside the USA it makes no sense why voters would be identified as to which party they are registered to, this sounds very undemocratic.

Early voting for all kind of reasons is as great idea and practiced by many other democracies. However such voting should be restricted to specific dates before the actual election. Many democracies do request proof of the early voter to show a valid reason why he cannot vote on election day. I see no problem with a voter ID to be eligible to vote.

America likes to pride itself as the model in democracy, its voting practices are anything than democratic, just look at the avalanche of money spent on campaigns, looks to the rest of the world like they are buying the votes.

Posted by joco69 | Report as abusive

There is another very good and practical reason for early voting — potential weather disruptions. Look at the current situation regarding Hurricane Sandy. What if there are severe and prolonged power outages in the Mid-Atlantic or Northeast that stretch past Nov. 6? What happens then? No voting? Delayed voting? The loss of voting results? Romney winning because many blue state voters couldn’t vote? That would provoke a civil war. If we had early voting here in Virginia I would have done it long ago and wouldn’t have to worry about the possibility of my polling place being closed on Nov. 6. I suspect that if we do see catastrophic disruptions in NJ, NY, PA, and the New England states there might be call for mandatory early voting nationwide.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive

The Republicans represent the weathy. Their only other reliable voters are those who agree on social issues – E.G., those who are so vehemently anti-abortion they believe pregnancy resulting from rape is “God’s will” – and those whose anger towards the poor can be used to trick into voting against their self-interest.

These groups, taken together, are a clear minority. Thus their best chance of winning is voter suppression. The harder they can make it to vote, the more obstacles they can place in the way of voting, the better their chances. If they could repeal the 19th Amendment (woman’s suffrage) they would do it in a minute. If they could prevent African-Americans and Hispanics from voting, they wouldn’t hesitate, and, in fact, are doing everything possible to minimize voting among these groups.

Oh how they would love to turn the clock back to the time when only white male property owners could vote. Republicans don’t believe in democracy. They believe in wealth and power and will do *anything* to keep it.

Watch FOX News. They make up whatever they want to damage Obama and have been doing it since 2008 election eve. Now, in the final ten days before the election, they appear to have been driven beyond insane into hysteria by the idea that there is at least a 50-50 chance that Barack Obama will be re-elected.

The latest example of this hysteria is Romney surrogate John Sununu’s claim that Colin Powell endorsed Obama not because of policy considerations, but because “[they] are the same race.”

Absolute hystereria.

Posted by jocking | Report as abusive

My biggest issue with early voting is the lack of consistency/ uniformity among states as to how it is actually carried out.

Posted by drKendra | Report as abusive

I agree with the title of the article, Elections do not matter anymore. Particularly the presidential election. We should revert back to letting the electoral collage choose the high offices. I say that as the public has no idea what they are voting for. All they have for information is a bunch of lies that no one could possibly sort out without extensive research and resources to accomplish it. I know it makes the masses fell better, like they’re in control, but they’re not. It’s a terrible thing out politicians and media have done to free elections and it should be stopped.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Liked the article except for the snide end comment “The party trying to suppress voting is usually the one that’s losing.” The author is reminded of and could have addressed the element of fraudulent voting and early voting. Fraudulent voting in the US is the domicile of Democrats and has been especially egregious in several memorable elections including but not limited to ballot stuffing for Obama in Clark County Nevada in 2008, the fraudulent election of Senator Al Franken and the Chicago ballot stuffing for Kennedy that put him over the top.
It would appear that the author’s snipe at undemonstrated suppression by Republicans is but amateurish compared to the professional fraud perpetrated by Democrats.

What happened to real journalism?

Posted by JP007 | Report as abusive

I voted a week go, I’m registered as Democrat but I never changed my party affiliation, I haven’t voted Democrat in over 30 years. So, I guess we’ll have to wait until the election day results come in before we know who voted for who.

Posted by lawgone | Report as abusive