Early Voting Numbers: Hard To Know Who’s “Winning”

With an estimated 7-8 million votes having already been cast by last weekend, all sorts of guesstimates are being made of what it all tells us about the shape of the midterm electorate and who’s likely to win very close races. A lot of attention is being paid to Iowa, where mail ballot voting has been underway for weeks with very regular reports being issued. And the headline there has been that Republicans are doing better than usual, briefly even taking the lead over Democrats in the number of mail ballots that have been returned by their registered voters.

Molly Ball of The Atlantic reinforces the impression of Republicans winning the early voting war in Iowa with a piece that relies heavily on an interview with an individual veteran Democratic canvasser who seems to be having a harder time than usual getting people to talk to her (and who has probably now been chewed out for talking so much to Ball).

Ball reports but clearly does not buy two plausible Democratic counterarguments about the early voting numbers: (a) the “no party” mail voters are actually overwhelmingly Democratic leaners, and (b) Democrats are disproportionately reaching voters who didn’t participate in 2010, thus expanding the electorate instead of just banking votes from people who would otherwise vote on November 3. There’s a third data point Ball doesn’t mention that could cut either way: Democrats have been registering a lower return rate for requested mail ballots, which could either mean poor “enthusiasm” or a reservoir of last-minute votes that could give Democrats the kind of advantage in early voting they’ve usually shown in Iowa.

Personally, I think it’s still too early to make big judgments about early voting in Iowa, but in any event, I’d trust the data and analysis of the University of Florida’s Michael McDonald, long the guru of early voting, on the trends more than the kind of anecdotal material supplemented by he-said-she-said partisan opinions that Ball is mainly relying on. And what impresses McDonald most about Iowa is how high the numbers are for early voting all around, which could mean a surprisingly high turnout or alternatively that one or both parties is simply banking votes early that they would have eventually obtained. He also figures Iowa Democrats may be about to conduct a return-your-ballot push that might restore their traditional advantage.

The picture isn’t a whole lot clearer for two other big early voting states with significant reporting, as analyzed by McDonald. In North Carolina, he thinks Democrats are doing a good job of compensating for reduced in-person early voting days, but Republicans maintain an advantage in mail ballots. The same is true in Florida (where mail ballots significantly outweigh in-person early votes), but Democrats seem to be rapidly reducing the traditional GOP margins. And in Georgia, the lack of party registration makes it difficult to figure out who’s “winning” early voting, but Democrats are encouraged by the fact that 35% of early voters so far are nonwhite.

It’s often impossible to judge early voting until “late voting”–last-minute mail ballots and of course November 4 voting–is competed. That’s probably the case this year as well, no matter what that canvasser told Molly Ball.

UPDATE: As Nate Cohn reported at The Upshot, African-Americans dominated in-person early voting in Georgia and North Carolina last Sunday, representing over half of the total vote. The success of black-church-based “souls to the polls” drives on Sundays near Election Day explains why Republicans almost everywhere have tried to restrict or ban Sunday voting.

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.