As Republican nominee Mitt Romney works to regain momentum in the final weeks before the Nov. 6 presidential election, time is pressing. Election Day essentially starts this week in Iowa.
Voters in Ohio similarly can begin casting ballots on Oct. 2, in North Carolina on Oct. 18 and Nevada on Oct. 20. In total, six of the nine top battleground states will have early, in- person voting under way by the third debate between Romney and President Barack Obama on Oct. 22.
That means the candidates could deliver the best debate performances of their careers and it would be too late to sway the votes of a growing slice of the electorate.
Although it brings additional logistical hurdles, early balloting benefits campaigns organized enough to take advantage of it because resources can be more finely targeted at the remaining voters the weekend before the election.
“This allows them to bank votes,” said Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who studies early voting. “They encourage their supporters to vote early and scratch out the names of people who have voted. Once they turn that ballot in, they’re not going to contact them anymore.”
All of the key battleground states except New Hampshire and Virginia allow early, in-person voting, while all provide absentee ballots before Election Day. In total, 32 states and the District of Columbia offer some form of early, in-person balloting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The voting in Ohio starts the day before the first presidential debate in Denver. That is one reason Romney and his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, are heading to the state this week for a three-day bus tour.
In the past decade, states have dramatically expanded forms of early voting, pushed by residents living in an era of frequent travel, busy family schedules and the expectation of less standing in line because of technology improvements.
That expansion has also come with legal challenges over the duration and mechanics of early voting, including some that are pending in the battleground states of Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Much of the litigation stems from state election law revisions pushed by Republicans after Obama’s 2008 win. Supporters have argued the laws are needed to reduce fraud and help elections run smoothly, while Democrats and voter advocacy groups maintain the changes are designed to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters and reduce turnout for Obama.
Both campaigns have woven early-voting strategies into their overall plans and will continue to try to time appearances with the start of balloting in the various states.
“In nine days, you can start early voting in here in Iowa,” Vice President Joe Biden said Sept. 18 during a campus rally in Grinnell, Iowa. “Every state should be like this. But you should take advantage of it.”
The start of early voting may favor Obama because many recent polls have shown him leading nationally and in most of the battleground states. The Romney campaign was thrown off stride last week by release of a secretly recorded videotape in which he told donors earlier this year that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay income taxes, feel victimized and entitled to federal help and aren’t likely to support him.
Still, McDonald cautioned against portraying Obama as having too much of an early-voting advantage.
“People cast their ballot when they are ready to do so,” he said. “It starts off small and the closer to Election Day, the number of people increases considerably.”
In 2008, McDonald said about 30 percent of Americans voted before Election Day. That number could grow to at least 35 percent this year, he said.
There will also be more parity in early-voting efforts than four years ago, when Obama made it an integral part of his campaign and Republican nominee John McCain didn’t, McDonald said.
More than a third of the 2008 Iowa electorate cast ballots before Election Day, state records show. In some battlegrounds, the proportion of early voters was higher, election officials said. More than half voted early in North Carolina and Florida, and 45 percent did so in Nevada, records show. Obama carried all four states.
Focused on Politics
Those who vote early tend to be “high information voters who follow politics very closely,” McDonald said, adding that “nothing you could tell them would change their mind.”
Adam Fetcher, an Obama re-election spokesman, said the early voting allows the campaign to target its efforts “more efficiently on Election Day to make sure those less likely to vote get out” to the polls.
“While Mitt Romney and his allies are counting on big ad buys full of false attacks in the final weeks, we’ve made early investments in battleground states -- where we’ve been registering folks and keeping an open conversation going with undecided voters for months -- to build an historic grassroots organization,” Fetcher said.
Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, said the campaign is concentrating on “lower propensity voters” most likely to vote for the Republican as its prime early voting targets.
Romney’s campaign also has built a voter database significantly larger than the McCain team had in 2008, making targeting voters more precise, Beeson said.
“The playing field is more level this time,” he said.
Senior citizens, the demographic group that polls have shown give Romney his strongest support, have a tradition of early voting through absentee ballots.
Romney’s campaign had success with early voting during the primary season, especially in Florida. Money for campaign ads and get-out-the-vote efforts helped him bank a lead when he had momentum after strong finishes in the Iowa and New Hampshire contests that kicked off the race and before his frontrunner status was hurt by a loss to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich in South Carolina.
Besides the increased chances of voter participation, McDonald said another benefit of early voting is that it discourages campaigns from unleashing allegations against an opponent the weekend before an election.
“We don’t really see October surprises any more in states with early voting,” he said. “You can’t wait. They have to get it out earlier than in previous elections.”
--Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin.
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