Traditionally, the path to the presidency was just that: a linear campaign trail that moved from Iowa to New Hampshire and onward through a series of state contests, each building on the momentum of the last.
The 2008 primary race, however, looks as if it will be run on parallel tracks. Candidates will still be making the classic treks to Dubuque, Iowa, and Dixville Notch, N.H. But strategists expect the well-heeled campaigns will, at the same time, be mobilizing early voting drives in California, Florida, and Texas.
The reason: California's primary comes early this election, and nearly half the voters here are expected to cast ballots days or even weeks before the polls open. While the primary calendar remains highly fluid, Florida and Texas – two other states with lots of early voters – are among those jostling to move up their election days as well.
This parallel campaigning may make it harder for less-funded candidates to gain momentum if they win early primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. "The early absentee voting is one more obstacle for insurgent candidates," says Dan Schnur, a California political strategist. "Somebody who pulls off an upset in Iowa or New Hampshire is going to be facing an even steeper hill to climb in these states, because [some] of the votes will already be in the bank."
Those "banked" votes would be either absentee ballots, which can be turned in as soon as they are mailed out, or votes cast early at precincts that open weeks ahead of election day in some states.
Campaigns that can afford to do so will want to "lock in" their loyal voters in these states at the same time as they are focusing on the earliest races, says John Fortier, author of the book "Absentee and Early Voting: Trends, Promises, and Perils."
The logic, he says, runs like this: "Let's get the people we know are going to vote for us out there now. Let's not let chance or something affect getting them to the polls."
Those who capture large numbers of early votes will have a head start on competitors as the race moves to the big states, and an extra cushion in case of an early campaign stumble.
To be sure, a top showing in New Hampshire and Iowa is still expected to be of paramount importance. Candidates could even parlay the wins in those states to motivate supporters in California to vote early.
But the ability to build on early momentum depends on having the get-out-the-vote infrastructure in place ahead of time, says Dr. Fortier. Staff-intensive operations cannot be ginned up overnight, even with a rush of donations after wins in Iowa or New Hampshire.
For now, the Iowa caucuses are slated for Jan. 14, 2008, although they could go earlier if New Hampshire moves up its tentative Jan. 22 date as early as December. But big states are determined to go early, too:
• The Florida House and Senate have both passed bills for a Jan. 29 primary date. In 2006, 47 percent of voters cast either early or absentee ballots. Absentee ballots often are mailed five weeks in advance. And precincts open 15 days ahead of election day to allow for early voting.
• The Texas House has approved a Feb. 5 primary, with the issue now heading to the Senate. Absentee voting is not widespread in Texas, but about a third of voters cast ballots early at precincts that open two weeks before election day.
• California's primary is also set for Feb. 5, with experts predicting nearly half of all ballots cast to be absentee.
It's difficult to gauge how many voters will actually commit weeks before their election deadline, however.
"Generally, the trend that we are seeing is people turn in their ballots closer to election day," says Eva Galanes-Rosenbaum, associate director of the early voting information center at Reed College in Oregon. "So we'll see a trickle a couple days after people will receive their ballots, and it becomes a flood right before the election."
In recent California elections, roughly 15 to 20 percent of likely voters had already voted by the final week before election day, says Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.
If a candidate leads significantly in early voting numbers, he or she might leak that information to drum up momentum across the country, some analysts have suggested.
"I suspect that voters would recoil from that and that there would be a lot of public relations implications: negative feedback to the organizations doing it," says Mr. DiCamillo. The Field Poll, he says, has never revealed early voting results for ethical reasons, and neither have California media outlets.
"It's a distorted read, and no one knows how distorted it is before all the votes are counted," he adds. That's partially because a pollster cannot know the total number of votes cast until polls close, meaning the sample size is in question.
Early voters also tend to be disproportionately older and white. DiCamillo notes that presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton polls very well among Hispanics in California, meaning her real strength may be obscured before election day.