What America’s smartest early vote expert sees in the data

What America’s smartest early vote expert sees in the data
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Democrats are turning out more voters than expected in Southern states. Republicans are mitigating Democrats’ usual advantage in the Midwest. And the first presidential debate may have had an impact on who actually shows up to vote.

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Those are the early conclusions drawn by Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who tracks early and absentee voting more closely than anyone not employed by a national political party. 

McDonald predicts more than 40 percent of Americans will cast ballots before Election Day this year, and he says initial numbers show some surprising strengths and weaknesses for both sides.

North Carolina, with 15 Electoral College votes, is an early bright spot for Democrats. The state has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only twice in the past 10 cycles — for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and for Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJudge denies Trump spokesman's effort to force Jan. 6 committee to return financial records Gina McCarthy: Why I'm more optimistic than ever on tackling the climate crisis The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks MORE in 2008. This year, Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe dangerous erosion of Democratic Party foundations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket MORE’s campaign appears to be outperforming Obama’s 2008 campaign in the Tar Heel State — and, more importantly, Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy  Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE is underperforming earlier GOP nominees.

“We’re seeing continued weakness for the Republicans in North Carolina,” McDonald said late Wednesday. “Their weakness is really coming from the urban areas of North Carolina.”

Through the weekend, absentee-ballot requests by registered Democratic voters there were up 17 percent over 2012 in the state’s 10 largest counties, while Republican ballot requests were down more than 20 percent statewide. By Wednesday, 54,000 Republicans in North Carolina had requested absentee ballots, compared with 42,000 Democrats. 

According to the state board of elections there are 2,689,045 registered Democrats and 2,044,281 registered Republican voters in North Carolina. 

Democrats tend to run up the score when early voting begins, while Republicans do better among absentee voters; if Democrats can keep the margin close among absentee voters, their early voting margins could swamp the GOP advantage.

Election officials in blue-trending Northern Virginia have said interest in absentee balloting is up from four years ago, McDonald said. While the state doesn’t provide the same level of data as North Carolina, McDonald believes Clinton’s performance in those two states can probably be extrapolated north and applied to the Old Dominion’s 13 electoral votes too.

“Clinton is doing better in these states than Obama did in 2012,” he said.

Florida is another stronghold for Democrats this cycle, with 29 all-important electoral votes. 

About 41 percent of those requesting absentee ballots are Republican voters, while 39 percent are Democrats — an edge of about 60,000 votes for the GOP. But that margin is much smaller than it has been in earlier cycles, and as in North Carolina, Democrats tend to dominate early voting.

“Traditionally, we’ve seen Republicans have an advantage in the mail ballots in Florida. If the current trajectory keeps going, day by day Democrats are whittling away at that advantage,” McDonald said. 

“Republicans need to establish a lead in the mail balloting to offset what we’ll see as a Democratic-friendly in-person voting period.”

The outlook for Democrats isn’t as good in two key Midwestern states, Iowa and Ohio, which will allocate six and 18 electoral votes, respectively. 

In Iowa, about 30,000 more registered Democrats have requested absentee ballots than registered Republicans. But that margin is nowhere near as large as in 2012, when 312,834 registered Democrats requested absentee ballots, compared with just 229,596 registered Republicans.

“Iowa looks particularly problematic for the Clinton campaign, and that started with Day One,” McDonald said.

Democratic requests have been slowest in eastern Iowa, where Democrats hope to hold on to Rep. Dave Loebsack’s (D) House seat and knock off Rep. Rod Blum (R). Those numbers, McDonald said, could indicate Democratic weakness in southwestern Wisconsin, another battleground state.

Ohio Democrats, too, have been turning out at lower than expected numbers, especially in key Democratic-heavy areas such as Franklin and Cuyahoga counties, where Democratic absentee requests are down 16 percent. Republican requests are down as well, McDonald said, but not by as much as with Democrats.

“Ohio started early voting today,” McDonald said Wednesday, “and Democrats are starting at a disadvantage.”

Across the board, turnout is down in states where Trump has polled well, McDonald said. Conversely, turnout is up in places where Clinton has outperformed Obama. That would seem to vindicate Trump’s decision to try driving up Clinton’s negatives  in order to depress her turnout.

“If you can really go negative on Clinton, maybe you can change the electorate,” he said.

But, he warned, the strategy could backfire: “Democrats in the Midwest are sleeping dogs. They aren’t engaged at the level they were in 2012. If Trump comes along and kicks the dog, they could wake up and vote.”