Just over a week before Election Day, signs of widespread Republican enthusiasm are apparent in the early-voter data, including in some places with highly competitive statewide races. Yet at the same time, for Democrats there are promising data in numerous states suggesting that the idea of a devastating turnout gap may be overblown.
POLITICO surveyed early voting through Saturday in 20 states, and in 14 of the 15 that have voter registration by party, the GOP’s early turnout percentage is running ahead of the party’s share of statewide voter registration — whether measured against 2006 or 2008, when President Barack Obama’s campaign led to a surge in Democratic voter registration. As a result, Republicans say they’re turning the tables on the Democratic dominance of early voting that paved the way for Obama’s victory in 2008 — and that independents’ lean toward the GOP this year will do the rest.
In Florida, in addition to having a lead in absentee ballots, “incredibly, we are also leading early voting so far, the first time that has ever happened,” the state GOP’s Daniel Conston said. “We don’t expect to win early voting, but any lead at all is shocking at this point and a testament to the incredible enthusiasm amongst Republicans.”
At the same time, the early-voting numbers provide evidence that the Democratic ground-level organization in some states is matching or exceeding Republicans’ enthusiasm.
Democrats point to states like Iowa, Ohio and West Virginia, where they have turned out more of their partisans than Republicans so far. And they say they’re focused on getting out voters who might not otherwise come out in an off-year election.
“We are expanding the electorate in this midterm election, and Republicans are not,” the Ohio Democratic Coordinated Campaign’s Lauren Groh-Wargo said.
Broad generalizations about who’s winning in early voting — and what it means for Nov. 2 — are imperfect, in part because of the wide variance among state systems and the limited availability of detailed data.
In some closely watched states, early voting isn’t much of a factor: Illinois and Pennsylvania, for example, where 90 percent of the vote is likely to be cast on Election Day. In other states, early voting is rampant but information is scarce. In California, where more than a million votes are already banked, and Washington state, where nearly all voting is done by mail, officials haven’t released turnout by party. Often the major parties and some outside groups have the most thorough and up-to-date information, since they work hard to identify voters and track early votes in some of these states.
California provides an illustrative example of the complexities of interpreting early returns. According to data gathered by the Atlas Project, a private Democratic consulting firm, 43 percent of California early voters have been Democrats, while 39 percent have been Republicans. Considering the Democrats’ current 44-31 registration advantage in the state, the GOP appears to be outpacing its share of the electorate, while Democrats appear to be staying home. Then again, in the 2006 early vote — a great year for Democratic candidates — each party drew 41 percent, a performance that was below Democratic registration and well above the Republican share.
Even with complete statistics at hand, party breakdowns only mean so much. Turnout numbers don’t translate exactly into votes — registered partisans may cross party lines, and the independent vote is frequently decisive.
Michael McDonald, a George Mason University professor who tracks early voting, points to West Virginia as an example of a state where early-turnout breakdowns may prove misleading. Thus far, 55 percent of voters have been Democrats. But they may not all be voting for Gov. Joe Manchin in his Senate race against Republican John Raese.
“Either Manchin is safer than we thought he was, or these are Southern Democrats whose registration may not tell you what their party loyalty is,” McDonald said. “That large gap could be a bit of a red herring.”
McDonald expects the continued increase in the number of people voting early across the country to raise overall turnout this year, mitigating the usual falloff from a presidential year to a midterm.
That means history won’t be much of a guide: “We are in uncharted territory,” he said.
Below is a list of states for which partisan breakdowns of early voting could be obtained, with the data assembled from a combination of McDonald’s tracking efforts, official state tallies, Democratic and Republican voter identification and monitoring and a data set compiled by the progressive Atlas Project and obtained by POLITICO. Voter registration data from 2006 and 2008 come from “The Almanac of American Politics.”
Republicans cast 44 percent and Democrats 34 percent of the early votes tracked by the Atlas Project. The group warns that the data are heavily skewed toward the state’s urban areas, particularly Phoenix’s Maricopa County. More than half of the state’s 2008 ballots were early votes.
2006 voter registration: 38% (R) 33% (D) 29% (Other)
2008 voter registration: 37% (R) 34% (D) 28% (O)
More than a million ballots have been cast in California, 43 percent of them by Democrats, 39 percent by Republicans, according to the Atlas data. With Democrats holding a 44-31 registration advantage, that might not look good for them. But it’s an improvement on their performance in the 2006 early vote, when the parties each drew 41 percent. More than 40 percent of voters are likely to cast ballots before Election Day in a state with close races for Senate and governor.
2006 voter registration: 43% (D) 34% (R) 23% (O)
2008 voter registration: 44% (D) 31% (R) 24% (O)
Out of the nearly 200,000 votes recorded so far, Republicans cast 42 percent of them, to Democrats’ 37 percent, as of Thursday. In 2008, the early vote made up 80 percent of overall turnout. This could spell trouble for Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, but the picture is more complicated in the three-way gubernatorial race.
2006 voter registration: 36% (R) 30% (D) 34% (O)
2008 voter registration: 33% (R) 33% (D) 34% (O)
In 2008, more than half of the vote was cast before Election Day, whether by mail or in person. Republicans so far dominate early voting this year, 53 percent to 34 percent, but most of the nearly 800,000 votes cast have been by mail. Democrats tend to emphasize in-person early voting and may gain ground as that goes on. Party breakdowns may be more relevant to the state’s gubernatorial race than to its three-way Senate contest.
2006 voter registration: 40% (D) 38% (R) 22% (O)
2008 voter registration: 42% (D) 36% (R) 22% (O)
There is no registration by party in Georgia, but based on voter identification tracking, the GOP says it has the lead in absentee ballots returned, with 58 percent to 26 percent for Democratic-leaning voters. Early voting swelled from less than one-fifth to more than half the electorate from 2006 to 2008.
Democrats lead turnout, 46 percent to 38 percent, with almost 200,000 votes cast, according to official figures. More than one-third of 2008 turnout was early votes.
2006 voter registration: 31% (D) 30% (R) 39% (O)
2008 voter registration: 34% (D) 29% (R) 37% (O)
Democrats lead turnout with nearly 50,000 votes in the bag, 47 percent to 43 percent. But early turnout made up just 15 percent of the vote in the state in 2008. Voter registration numbers can be misleading in Louisiana: Democrats had a roughly 2-1 overall voter registration advantage in 2008, and John McCain still won by 59 percent.
2006 voter registration: 54% (D) 25% (R) 22% (O)
2008 voter registration: 53% (D) 25% (R) 22% (O)
It’s a tie: Each party makes up 37 percent of the 46,000 votes cast so far in Maine, where independents constitute the largest voter group. The gubernatorial race, which features Democrat Libby Mitchell, tea-party-backed Republican Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler as the three leading candidates, scrambles party-based equations. More than 30 percent voted early in 2008.
2006 voter registration: 31% (D) 28% (R) 41% (O)
2008 voter registration: 33% (D) 27% (R) 40% (O)
While 63 percent of the ballots so far have been cast by Democrats and just 28 percent by Republicans, that’s out of fewer than 5,000 votes — probably less than 1 percent of turnout at the end of the day.
2006 voter registration: 55% (D) 29% (R) 16% (O)
2008 voter registration: 57% (D) 27% (R) 16% (O)
There is no registration by party in Michigan. With more than 200,000 absentee ballots returned, Republicans say they have a lead, 35 percent to 18 percent. Atlas, on the other hand, says Democrats are up, 37 percent to 29 percent. One-fifth of voters cast ballots before Election Day in recent years.
Republicans have a slight lead in early turnout, 43 percent to 42 percent, out of the more than 160,000 early votes cast statewide through Friday, according to officials. That’s despite Democrats’ 42-37 advantage in voter registration. Democrats say their internal figures, which include mail ballots, show them up slightly. More than half the votes are likely to be cast before Election Day.
2006 voter registration: 40% (D) 39% (R) 21% (O)
2008 voter registration: 43% (D) 36% (R) 21% (O)
Democrats cast 43 percent and Republicans 28 percent of the 66,000 early and absentee votes tracked by Atlas. But pre-election voting is likely to amount to less than 10 percent of the electorate.
2006 voter registration: 24% (D) 18% (R) 58% (O)
2008 voter registration: 33% (D) 20% (R) 47% (O)
Republicans have a 47 percent to 44 percent lead among the 75,000 early ballots cast so far, according to data gathered by the Atlas Project. More than 60 percent of votes were cast early in 2008.
2006 voter registration: 49% (D) 33% (R) 18% (O)
2008 voter registration: 50% (D) 32% (R) 18% (O)
Democrats lead 44 percent to 38 percent with more than 220,000 votes recorded. But that represents a decline from 2006, when Democrats led early voting by 48 percent to the GOP’s 36 percent, according to Atlas. Early voting skyrocketed, from 20 percent to 60 percent of turnout, between 2006 and 2008.
2006 voter registration: 46% (D) 35% (R) 20% (O)
2008 voter registration: 46% (D) 32% (R) 22% (O)
Democrats make up 44 percent to the GOP’s 35 percent of the 400,000 votes cast through Thursday, according to statewide monitoring by Democrats. Early voting represented a quarter of the 2008 vote here; there is no registration by party.
Democrats have an edge, 44 percent to 38 percent, among the more than 100,000 votes cast so far in this all-mail-ballot state.
2006 voter registration: 39% (D) 36% (R) 26% (O)
2008 voter registration: 43% (D) 32% (R) 25% (O)
While Republicans have returned more absentee ballots than Democrats, 56 percent to 37 percent, those are likely to make up less than 5 percent of the final tally in the tight Senate race between Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Sestak. The rest of the voting is on Election Day.
2006 voter registration: 48% (D) 40% (R) 12% (O)
2008 voter registration: 51% (D) 37% (R) 12% (O)
In a state with nearly all mail balloting and no partisan registration, the Atlas Project data put Republican-leaning voters ever so slightly ahead of Democratic-leaning voters, 38.8 percent to 38.5 percent, but caution that few of the 200,000 ballots recorded in this sample come from Seattle’s King County, the state’s Democratic stronghold.
Democrats constitute 55 percent to Republicans’ 35 percent of the 42,000 votes cast so far, but that’s down from their 2-to-1 registration advantage. Early voting could constitute a quarter of the total vote.
2006 voter registration: 57% (D) 30% (R) 13% (O)
2008 voter registration: 56% (D) 29% (R) 15% (O)
Democrats lead, 43 percent to 23 percent, among the 28,000 early ballots, according to the Atlas data. Early voting is a marginal but growing factor in a state that has no registration by party: It increased from 8 percent to 21 percent of the vote between 2006 and 2008.