Early Voting and Tea Leaves

The voting is nearly upon us. In fact, many absentee ballots have already been requested and quite a few have already been returned. So, it’s now possible to begin reading some tea leaves.

The best way to do this is not to look strictly at the party registration of ballot requesters because there are a lot of states, particularly in the South and in Appalachia, where likely Republican voters are still registered as Democrats. The best way to judge how things are going is to compare this year to the same point in the cycle four years ago.

Based on that type of analysis, done by the Associated Press, the first batch of results look solid for Clinton in North Carolina and somewhat worrying for her in Iowa.

Overall, for a variety of reasons including a superior ground game, the Democrats do better than the Republicans in getting people to vote early. So, in Iowa, for example, “Democrats dominate the early requests with 40,476 or roughly 60 percent of the ballots so far, compared to 13,011 or 19 percent for Republicans.” But that’s actually bad news for Clinton because four years ago “92,850 Democrats had requested ballots at this point, compared to 13,635 for Republicans.”

In other words, the Republicans are about the same, but Democrats have requested less than half the ballots they asked for by this stage in 2012. This is important because Obama actually lost the Election Day voting in Iowa and yet won the state based on the margins he built up in early voting.

By contrast, in North Carolina “Democrats made up 40 percent of the ballots returned so far compared to 33 percent for Republicans. At this point in 2012, Republicans were running slightly ahead, 43 percent to 38 percent, in ballots submitted.”

Ballots returned is a different (and more important) metric than ballots requested, and it’s a positive sign for Clinton that she’s doing better in North Carolina than Obama did four years ago.

Ohio doesn’t break things down by party, but I think there’s reason to believe that Clinton is doing well there, too.

In Ohio, election officials reported Monday that more than 524,000 voters had submitted absentee ballot applications. That’s up from nearly 485,000 during a similar period in 2012, when a record 1.87 million absentee ballots ultimately were cast by mail and in person, according to the secretary of state’s office.

The reason I suspect this is good news is that I can see that requests from Republicans are flat in Iowa and that returns are down in North Carolina. In addition, Democrats tend to utilize early voting more. Therefore, an increase in overall requests in Ohio suggests an advantage for Clinton and less of a probability of the enthusiasm drop-off we see in Iowa.

Overall, the data here provide a mixed and ambiguous message. There’s definitely a problem in Iowa, which we’ve seen reflected in the polls. But, in this trio of states, Iowa has the fewest Electoral Votes and is therefore the least important. Signs of strength in North Carolina more than offset concerns about Iowa, and the numbers out of Ohio may be hard to gauge but they’re not immediately troublesome for the Clinton campaign.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.