A surge in absentee ballots cast in states across the country is handing Democrats an early advantage heading into Election Day amid signs that the party’s vote-by-mail focus is turning out regular and new voters alike.
More than 6 million Americans have already voted in 27 states for November’s general election, according to data released by states that have begun accepting ballots.
Registered Democrats have returned 1.4 million ballots, more than twice the 653,000 ballots registered Republicans have returned so far, according to Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who analyzes early voting.
About two-thirds of voters who have already voted — 3.7 million Americans — are either unaffiliated with either party or live in states that do not register voters by party. Demographic modeling by one prominent Democratic firm, TargetSmart, estimates that almost 3 million of all votes cast have come from Democratic voters, compared to about 2.1 million from Republicans.
Regardless of party affiliation, more people are voting by mail this year than in years past. The coronavirus pandemic and both Democratic and Republican efforts to get their most hardened supporters to vote by mail has led to an explosion in the early vote.
At this point in the 2016 presidential contest, only around 750,000 people had voted, about 13 percent of the number of voters who have cast a ballot this year. In Wisconsin, South Dakota and Virginia, early votes account for more than one-fifth of the total number of votes cast in the entire 2016 election, McDonald’s data show.
So far this year, women, college-educated white voters, African Americans and Hispanic voters account for larger shares of the electorate than they did in 2016, a hopeful sign for Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenSouth Africa health minister calls travel bans over new COVID variant 'unjustified' Biden attends tree lighting ceremony after day out in Nantucket Senior US diplomat visiting Southeast Asia to 'reaffirm' relations MORE, who leads substantially among those groups.
Noncollege educated white voters, who make up the core of President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel faces double-edged sword with Alex Jones, Roger Stone Trump goes after Woodward, Costa over China Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE’s base, are also voting early in unprecedented numbers. So far, an estimated 2.8 million of those voters have cast ballots, nearly seven times the number who had voted at this point four years ago.
But those voters make up a smaller share of the overall electorate today, 49 percent, than in 2016, when they accounted for 58 percent. The college-educated white vote has grown to nearly 35 percent of the electorate, up from 30.3 percent four years ago, while the share of Black voters in the electorate has nearly doubled, to 9.2 percent.
“It’s not that white noncollege voters aren’t voting. They’re voting in way higher rates,” said Tom Bonier, who heads TargetSmart. “They’re coming out, but their surge can’t keep up with the surge of these traditional Democratic constituencies.”
Targeting experts on both sides cautioned that early vote tallies are not rock-solid indicators of the results on Election Day. Four years ago, Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future Popping the progressive bubble MORE held leads over Trump among those who decided to vote early.
But Democrats have early leads today that are more substantial than those they carried in 2016.
In Florida, registered Democrats had out-voted registered Republicans by a slim 37 percent to 35 percent margin by this point in 2016. Today, almost 53 percent of votes cast in Florida have come from registered Democrats, while Republicans account for just 28 percent.
In North Carolina, registered Democrats have cast 52 percent of all ballots so far, up from 36 percent four years ago. Registered Republicans account for just 17 percent of the ballots, down from 37 percent in 2016.
And in Pennsylvania, a state at the heart of Trump’s reelection strategy, registered Democrats have cast more than three-quarters of all ballots. Republicans made up just 15 percent of ballots returned to date.
“The fact that you have such a massive Democratic head start, that to me makes it much more difficult for the Trump campaign to play catchup,” said John Couvillon, a Louisiana pollster keeping tabs on early vote statistics.
Both parties use voter files cross-matched with absentee ballot reports to hone their target lists. Once someone casts their ballot, the two sides do not need to spend any more time or money trying to persuade or mobilize that voter. That allows a campaign to spend its time and money more efficiently.
“If they’re banking all their voters now, they can extend their energy now to chasing down those who are marginal voters,” Couvillon said. “They have more time to chase people who could be their voters.”
In 2016, Clinton’s lead among the earliest voters came from those who were already likely to cast their ballots. Trump’s surge, especially in states like Florida, came from new voters or those who voted only infrequently. Republicans see Democrats banking the same votes this year.
“The Democrats are so far, by and large, turning out people to vote absentee that would have likely either voted on Election Day or voted early in person,” said Mark Stephenson, who runs Red Oak Strategic, an analytics firm that works with Republican and corporate clients.
Today, those new and infrequent voters favor Democrats. More than twice as many voters who have never cast a ballot are registered Democrats as registered Republicans. TargetSmart’s figures estimate that the Democratic share of those first-time voters is slimmer, when unaffiliated voters are factored in; Bonier estimates Democratic voters make up about 44 percent of the first-time electorate, while first-time Republicans account for 35 percent.
Those figures mean Democrats could begin Election Day with a clear advantage in the number of votes cast from their registered voters.
But because of election rules in some states, that also means Trump could appear to begin with a lead when polls close. Many states prohibit election administrators from opening absentee ballots before the polls close, meaning votes cast on Election Day will be counted and reported first.
The early voting numbers validate months of polling that has found Americans are more excited and enthusiastic about this year’s election than those in years past — even among voters who have never gone or rarely go to the polls.
“We’re looking at multipliers of five, six, seven times more infrequent voters,” Bonier said. “We’ve been reading the tea leaves for months now. Now the votes are actually coming in.”