Why Election Day no longer matters
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