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.