October 27th, 2008
12:14 PM ET

Spinning the early vote

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/10/27/early.voting.jpg caption="Voters sit in line for early voting on Friday in Boynton Beach, Florida. "]

Paul Gronke
Director, Early Voting Information Center at Reed College

If the 2008 election looks like a 100-year-storm, then early voting  is an early warning system.  And the waves of voters are already spilling over the dikes.
As of Friday October 24th, 12 days before election day, more than seven million votes had already been cast. Georgia and North Carolina voters have been waiting in lines of up to two hours. There are scattered reports in Florida of even longer lines.

But it is the numbers that are shocking.  Early voting has smashed previous records in Texas, Florida, Illinois, Tennessee, Nevada–it's hard to find a state where records have not been broken.
Early voting in Georgia has already surpassed the total number voting early in 2004.

Records will be broken in many other states sometime next week.

Not only are a lot of citizens voting early this year, but the look of the early voter has changed.  In the past, I've described early voting like an apple pie (it's apple picking season out here in
Oregon).  Early voting doesn't make the pie any bigger–it doesn't draw new voters into the electorate–but it does take a slice out of the pie.

When you look at that early voting slice, it is usually a bit older, a bit whiter, a bit higher income, a bit better educated, and a bit more Republican.  But that means the rest of the pie–the voters who wait
until election day–are a bit more Democratic.

What did Grandma put into the pie this year?

African Americans are voting early in unprecedented numbers.  Blacks comprise 29% of the electorate in Georgia but 35% of the early electorate.  They are 24.2% of the North Carolina electorate and 28.%
of the early electorate there.   These may not seem like tremendous differences, but remember that, historically, African Americans have not opted to cast early ballots.

That slice also looks a lot more Democratic than it does in the past. In Franklin County, OH, a battleground county in a battleground state,the numbers are eye-opening: Democratic votes exceed Republican votes by a 12:1 margin.In other states, the numbers are not so lopsided,
but still trend toward the Democrats.  In six of the eight states that report early voting data by party, Democrats are outpacing Republicans.

I have tried my best to spin these numbers for John McCain, but it's getting difficult.  Let's look at some of the explanations.

Explanation 1: This is just a big wave of Democratic enthusiasm

Many Democrats are excited to finally cast a vote for Barack Obama and express their unhappiness with the Bush administration.  As one early voter told me: "getting my ballot this year was like getting my Christmas present two weeks early.  And I was not going to wait until Christmas day to open it!"

It's possible that this tide of Democratic voters will recede by Election Day, but there are two problems with this account.  First,the past has shown that early voting enthusiasm almost always
translates into election day enthusiasm.  This tide of voters will continue to rise.  Second, as Obama is able to mark names off his list, he is going to be able to redeploy resources to target
undecided voters, while McCain still has to focus on his base.  This cannot be good news.

Explanation 2: This is just a big wave of African American enthusiasm

This explanation has a lot more merit.  There is no denying the historic nature of this election, both for African Americans and for women.  I can certainly believe that the surprisingly high levels of
turnout are a combination of pent up excitement for the Democratic ticket, and the chance to vote for the first time for a Black candidate for President.  In this case, I think there is a very real chance that the election day electorate will look whiter than normal.

Explanation 3: Republicans are just biding their time until Election Day

Finally, it's possible that Republicans have changed their stripes, and unlike the past three or four presidential contests, have transformed into election day voters.  What I would worry about if I
were a GOP strategist, however, is that the voters hold their ballots for two reasons: uncertainty and unhappiness.  If GOP voters are either uncertain about John McCain or unhappy with the election, it
cannot bode well for Republican turnout.

It's possible that all these Democrats are voting early and won't be around on Election Day.  It's possible that Blacks are turning out early in unprecedented numbers to cast a Republican ballot.  And it's possible that Republicans are simply biding their time, lulling the Democrats into another Presidential failure.

It's possible, but really improbable.

Filed under: 2008 Election • Early Voting • Paul Gronke • Raw Politics
soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. ralph

    This could change up or down a little but where I check at McCain has today a 3.3% chance of winning this election. at this point and judging that even when doing great this has only went up to 6.5% I do not think it matters when people vote because the odds are not against McCain they seem impossible to change.

    October 27, 2008 at 2:35 pm |
  2. Julie San Diego, CA

    My theory on the Early Voting phenomenon is that the American public is just so SICK of this election that they're getting their responsibility as a citizen over with and voting now – thereby bypassing the hype of election day.

    Charlotte, I totally agree with your comment:
    "there is nothing like pouring yourself a glass of white wine and sitting at the table and marking your ballot. Especially in CA where we have so many confuing propositions to consider. ..November 5th will come none to soon for me."

    I did the same with my husband about a week ago, only it was a nice glass of cabernet (ok, it was 2 glasses of cabernet...in California we have ALOT of propositions to vote on). We voted out in the courtyard, because the roses are blooming really lovely this time of year, although the jasmine is a little late.

    Don't y'all wish you lived in California? 🙂

    Next election, let's just do nationwide permanent mail voting with optical scan ballots (paper trail). This give people plenty of time to research the candidates and the referendums.

    By the way, saw something I never thought I'd see – a bumper sticker proclaiming "Rednecks for Obama" on a Dodge Ram pickup truck – the poster vehicle for rednecks – along with a sticker that said the driver was a supporter of our local public radio station, KPBS.

    All you politicos out there, don't even TRY to define the American voter. It just isn't possible...

    October 27, 2008 at 2:30 pm |
  3. gyro

    Anderson, which presidential canidate are the deployed troops supporting according to absentee ballots?

    October 27, 2008 at 1:37 pm |
  4. Charlotte D


    Or could it be that people are seeing the long lines and thinking, whoa, I need to get out there and vote now. I can't be in line all day on the 4th.

    I think that it is great that Americans are coming out in such numbers to vote. Whichever way the election goes, everyone should let their voice be heard. For my husband and myself, our mail-in ballots are signed and sealed and stamped and will be dropped by the PO tonight or tomorrow. While I kind of miss going into the booth and closing the curtain at the neighborhood elementary, there is nothing like pouring yourself a glass of white wine and sitting at the table and marking your ballot. Especially in CA where we have so many confuing propositions to consider.

    November 5th will come none to soon for me.

    October 27, 2008 at 12:51 pm |
  5. chuck

    There is nothing to spin on early voting.About 90% of the early voting clearly belongs to the DEMOCRATS.Peole have shown that they cannot wait for REAL CHANGE after suffering through the WORST BUSH YEARS IN THE HISTORY OF AMERICA.John McCain and the Republicans know what the results at the polls will be but they are still fighting to save some PRIDE.Don't be surprise if more RED STATES turn BLUE on NOVEMBER04. The DEMS are strongly in control of the steering wheel and the Republicans will just have to shut-up and go along to clean up this MESS.

    October 27, 2008 at 12:49 pm |