Early Voting: “Who” Matters As Much as “How Many”

It’s safe to say that the entire political universe has tried at one point or another to divine the outcome of the 2012 presidential contest based on hints from early voting data. The Atlantic‘s Molly Ball does a solid job today of explaining what we know and don’t know about the numbers in the battleground states. She adjudges Democrats as “winning” in terms of hitting the marks they need in Iowa, Nevada and Ohio, with Republicans “winning” in Colorado, Florida and North Carolina. She calls Virginia (where early voting is very limited) a probable draw.

But there’s a wrinkle to early voting strategies that makes the raw numbers potentially misleading. “Who” votes early can be as important as “how many” votes are banked. There’s a fascinating item up at the Tampa Bay Times wherein Obama campaign sources claim they’ve done a superior job in turning out “sporadic” voters early, which means they can concentrate on Election Day in turning out supporters who are easier to mobilize:

A trusted Democratic operative sent us some data on the early and absentee ballot vote in Florida so far to make the point that Barack Obama is crushing Mitt Romney when it comes to banking the votes of sporadic and infrequent voters before election day. So far more than 3 million Floridians have cast a ballot by absentee, mail-in ballot or in-person early vote ballot. Democrats lead by more than 60,000 votes, but it’s the unlikely voter numbers that jump out:

Of the nearly 414,000 Floridians who did not vote in the last three general elections, Democrats have an advantage of more than 53,000 votes. Of the more than 482,000 Floridians who have only voted in one of the last three general elections, Democrats lead by more than 77,000 – a total of more than 132,000….

We chatted with Ashley Walker, director of the Florida Obama campaign, about this:

“This isn’t 2008. We don’t have 15 days of early vote. We have 8 days, and so it’s a different race,” Walker said. “When you really dig down and start looking at at these numbers in who is turning out with these vote-by-mail numbers and early vote numbers, more of our sporadic, irregular voters than theirs by a three-to-one margin. And that means we have more old faithfuls to come out on election day. I’m not going to try to bullshit you – it’s a tight race, it’s a really close race, but any spin they’re trying to feed you that we’re behind where we were in 2008 is just spin….It’s a totally different race. The opportunities and the rules of the game are totally different.”

You may recall from a post I did last week that Obama campaign folk nationally have been talking a lot about “sporadic” voters in terms of their overall GOTV effort. If the Florida claims are correct, they are effectively executing a targeting of “low-propensity” voters in early voting, which is another way of saying they are expanding the electorate even if the total early voting numbers, and the Democratic advantage (if any), aren’t impressive.

I obviously have no way of verifying the Obama campaign’s Florida claims, but if they’re true, it could be an important ace-in-the-hole come Tuesday, particularly if Republicans aren’t matching this particular effort.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.