Early voting results point to Obama lead. Does that matter?

Early voting results show the vote total for Democrats is relatively lower than in Election 2008, and the GOP's is higher. Republican strategists say this is a sign of weakness for Obama. Still, Republicans trail Democrats in early voting.

Sue Ogrocki/AP
Voters crowd the polling cubicles during early voting in Oklahoma City, Friday, Nov. 2.

Some 34 million early and absentee ballots have already been cast in the 2012 presidential race – about 35 percent of expected overall turnout. In general, Democrats lead this early-vote race, but they aren’t doing as well as they did in 2008 – the party’s vote total is relatively lower, and the GOP’s is higher.

Does this matter? Is it a sign of weakness, as Republican strategists contend?

“As you go state by state and look at the specifics ... we are doing very well in these early and absentee state [votes] and feel very good about heading into the Tuesday election,” said Rich Beeson, political director of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, in a conference call with reporters last week.

It’s possible the early-voting shift is a sign of Election Day trends to come. The narrowing of the gap between the two parties could indicate greater enthusiasm on the part of Republican voters. It might show that the GOP has stepped up its game in get-out-the-vote efforts.

Take Nevada, a big state where early and absentee voting is popular. In 2008, such votes made up 67 percent of the total cast in the state.

Four years ago, Democrats led the GOP among early-voting Nevada residents by 12 percentage points. This year that gap has been cut to seven points, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. (Before Tuesday, voting statistics don’t reflect presidential votes per se. Instead they indicate the party registration of those participating in the process.)

Given that Republicans often turn out on Election Day in disproportionate numbers, “we feel very good about where we stand in Nevada,” said Romney senior adviser Russ Schreifer last week.

The GOP is thumping its chest in similar fashion about Ohio. So far, about 1.6 million votes have been cast in Ohio. Democrats' lead among these is about six percentage points, according to AP.

Compared with this point in time four years ago, fewer Buckeye State Democrats and more Republicans have cast their ballots. The net gain for the GOP is about 200,000 votes, said Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio Monday during an appearance on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

“As compared to 2008, we’re doing better.... I do think the momentum is on our side,” said Senator Portman.

But here’s the problem for the Mitt Romney campaign: All this could be right, but it's still behind. According to the AP count, Democrats have cast more ballots than Republicans in all key battleground states except Colorado.

And in some senses, comparing early-vote totals this year to those of four years ago is comparing apples to kumquats. In Ohio, early-voting days have been cut this year, for instance. In Florida, the turnout crush meant such long lines that the state Democratic Party has sued to get early-voting hours extended.

For Romney, just cutting the early-vote/absentee margin in key states might not be enough. Take Ohio, again – as both candidates would love to do. As the percentages now stand, Romney would have to win Election Day voting in Ohio by 10 percentage points to win the state outright, according to Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager for President Obama.

The early-vote numbers released so far generally are in line with what polls show – a popular-vote race that’s almost tied, and a clear but narrow lead for Mr. Obama in the most important battlegrounds. They’re getting a lot of attention right now because they’re the only vote numbers out there. The numbers that count, though, will be the bottom lines for all votes on Tuesday night.

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