522,719 presidential votes cast so far: Is Mitt Romney holding his own?

The Romney campaign aims to block President Obama from getting too far out in front in early voting, as he did in 2008. So far, it appears to be succeeding in three key states.

Al Behrman/AP/File
Voters wait in line to pick up their ballots inside the Hamilton County Board of Elections after it opened for early voting on Oct. 2 in Cincinnati.

Riding a wave of building enthusiasm and favorable post-debate polling swings, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney appears to have also jumped to an early lead in several battleground states, judging by party affiliation of the 522,719 votes cast so far in the US.

Nearly 133 million people voted in the last presidential election (30 percent of them before Election Day), and Republicans have traditionally had an edge in the absentee ballots that are now flowing into state election offices.

Given those facts, the only nondebatable conclusion to draw from early voting so far is that “there’s greater interest in early voting than we would have expected,” says Michael McDonald, who tracks early voting for the US Elections Project at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

But for Mr. Romney, who has also jumped ahead of President Obama in some national and battleground polls after last week's debate, one part of his campaign strategy seems to be working: not to let Obama grab an insurmountable early voting lead, as he did in 2008 when early ballots in some states put him over the top in his win over GOP candidate John McCain.

Early voting results reflect some “organizational, demographic, and enthusiasm” gains by Republicans since the last election, says James Campbell, a voting behavior expert at University at Buffalo, which is part of New York State University.

For example, while only 0.4 percent of North Carolina voters have cast ballots so far, a majority of them have been Republican votes. In 2008, Democrats ended the early voting season with a majority edge. That year, Mr. Obama became the first Democrat to win North Carolina since Lyndon Johnson, by a margin of 14,000 votes.

"North Carolina was a place that they totally caught us flat-footed in 2008," Romney campaign manager Rich Beeson told the Associated Press this week. "They jumped out to a lead and never looked back. You don't see that happening this time – Republicans have the lead."

Moreover, Republican requests for ballots have increased in several Ohio counties where Obama had an edge in 2008, though that could be by virtue of a new Ohio law that mandates all voters be mailed an absentee vote request form.

Republicans also cite a 4 percentage point edge in early balloting in Florida, another battleground state. But Democrats have also picked up the early voting pace from 2008 in several battleground states, making Republican gains, at least those counted before last week’s debate, negligible.

“We’re actually seeing more registered Democrats voting in Maine, North Carolina, and Florida so far, so something is going on there that’s not being reflected in the polls,” says Mr. McDonald. “We have to remember that these are requests for ballots [instead of actual votes cast], so if the debate has actually stimulated the Republicans we should be seeing these numbers shift soon.”

The one state where the post-debate polling swings in favor of Romney may be having an impact on actual voters is in the battleground state of Iowa.

Democrats have had a comfortable 48 to 30 percent advantage over Republicans (the remaining 22 percent being independent early voters) in absentee ballot requests. But Wednesday and Thursday last week the number of Democrat requests slipped by a percentage point – part of a post-debate trend that may be connected to a recent George Washington University poll that suggested that 86 percent of Romney supporters are now “extremely likely” to vote compared with 73 percent of Obama supporters. (Obama won Iowa by 9 percent in 2008.)

“The numbers in Iowa have been drifting in the Republican direction, so I can’t say the state is solidly in Obama’s column and the game’s over,” says McDonald.  “If the Republicans continue to hustle, Iowa may still fall in their favor.”

While the votes cast so far don’t say much about the outcome of the actual election, perceptions gleaned from the early turnout could help sway narratives that may yet impact crucial undecided voters.

“The fact is, most of these early votes are going to be votes cast in one way or another, so really the best way to view this is as a product of campaigns' different emphases and encouragement on how you cast ballots,” says John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, N.C.

“In 2008, Obama got an advantage by counting up early voting, which let undecided voters swing onto the bandwagon. For that reason alone, I can see why the Romney campaign is saying, ‘Let’s get these numbers comparable in early voting, so it becomes tougher to write those stories and harder for us to lose the bandwagon discussions with the 5 to 10 percent of voters’” who are still undecided as Election Day rolls up.

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