What can the early vote numbers tell us?

When you take early vote numbers at face value, the signs point to a comfortable Obama lead. But when the polls close and the first numbers start coming in, be wary of reading into them, says Michael McDonald, early vote expert at George Mason University. The estimated 133 million votes to be cast this election is a turnout 1.6 percent less than in 2008, but the estimated 46 million early votes—34.6 percent of the vote—is a new record compared to 42 million in 2008. And those votes equal a lot of uncertainty, particularly because they shifted Mitt Romney’s way as Republican enthusiasm grew. Most eyes will be fixed on Ohio to determine the outcome of the election, but it’s a tricky state to read because—while the early vote isn’t processed throughout the day like other states—it’s typically the first to be run once the polls close. And that means the early counts could be skewed. “The first numbers that you get—a big warning sign goes along with those,” says McDonald. “They’re not always indicative of trends on election night.” Ohio’s early vote should give President Obama somewhere in the ballpark of a .9 percent boost, McDonald says. But while much of the early vote is or will be processed Nov. 6, some votes are still in the mail and can be processed up until Nov. 16 in Ohio and Nov. 13 in Iowa—so long as they’re postmarked before Nov. 6. That could affect some of the numbers we’re seeing. Another issue is that the early vote is typically an alternative method of voting for many Republicans but the only way of voting for many Democrats. In other words, an early vote typically equals a vote that wouldn’t have otherwise happened for Obama but one that would’ve probably happened anyways for Romney. McDonald says all the experts have to rely on right now is the party registration behind the early vote. “So if Romney winds up leading, not in a state like Virginia—but in Iowa , Ohio or North Carolina—that would be really interesting because more Democrats registered early,” he says. “That would mean the election’s turned on its head and this is a landslide for Romney.” Another factor to consider, McDonald says, is geographic distribution. Pay attention to whether rural or urban districts are the first to report in a state. Urban districts typically take longer and help Democrats rack up votes.

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