A winning early vote strategy may be your best asset come Election Day.
With four days to go, George W. Bush was closing in on the biggest race of his life. Every credible poll showed him leading Al Gore by narrow margins. And recent presidential contests have shown that the candidate with the lead heading into the final weekend usually expands those numbers by Election Day.
Then came the infamous Bush DUI story—the campaign was left scrambling. What did it mean? How should the campaign respond? Could it cost him the election?
We soon found out that it did play a role in the overall popular vote, particularly in pivotal states like Florida and New Mexico, which hung in the balance for weeks.
In the end, George Bush won Florida by just 537 votes out of 5,825,043 votes cast. And Al Gore won New Mexico by 366 votes out of 615,607 cast.
We all know the result of the ensuing legal saga, but for today’s campaigns, a key question lingers: Can you avoid being sunk by a last-minute gaffe, scandal or bad press cycle? The answer is yes, as long as you recognize the increasing importance of early voting.
A Growing Trend
While recent election cycles have seen candidates and party committees invest more in the final 72 hours, it’s increasingly clear that future campaigns have to invest, prepare and execute better turnout plans for the final 720 hours.
Nationwide, in-person early voting barely existed in 2000. (In New Mexico it was in use for the first time that year.) Recently, more states have shifted toward no-excuse absentee voting, and many now have a “walk-up” early voting period, too.
From an organizational standpoint, early voting is much more complicated than it
sounds. There are no uniform standards across the states, meaning almost every state has different early voting procedures. This makes it extremely difficult for national party committees or presidential campaigns to organize, especially when they don’t invest the necessary resources, namely the time, people and money.
The number of Americans voting early experienced a notable jump from 2004 to 2008. According to Dr. Michael McDonald, associate professor at George Mason University, overall early turnout in 2004 was only 22.5 percent of the total vote. In 2008, that percentage increased to 30 percent. A 7.5 percent difference in only four years should frighten future campaigns and party committees into investing more in early voting turnout programs.
Even more astonishing are the numbers in key presidential battleground states. In Florida, early voting comprised 36.1 percent of the total vote in 2004, compared to 51.8 percent in 2008. In Ohio, where inperson early voting was allowed for the first time last year, the numbers are just as eye-popping. Early voting increased from 10 percent in 2004 to 25 percent in 2008. Expect that number to only increase in future cycles as Ohioans and voters across the country get used to in-person early voting.
Longtime Ohio-based political consultant Jerry Austin says it was his party that capitalized last year. “The Democrats were so much more organized due to the contested primary and so they were much more ahead of the game with early voting in the general election,” Austin says. “Republicans usually out-work us, out-hustle us. But I believe that the Democrats’ early voting preparation was a key to the overall victory.
“I understand how some people want that excitement of voting on Election Day but I think the convenience of early voting will only grow. It could represent 40 to 50 percent of the Ohio vote in 2012.”
The trend is clear. Voters want to make going to the polls an easier and less time-consuming task. And states are responding in kind by passing no-excuse early voting, in addition to absentee voting.
Historically, Republicans win the absentee vote and Democrats have the advantage in walk-up early voting. But Barack Obama’s win last year shows a shift.
Buzz Jacobs, who ran the McCain effort in Florida, put it this way: “Typically in Florida
Republicans win absentees, the Democrats win walk-up early voting and Republicans turn out more votes on Election Day. But Obama’s team got a larger share of the absentee votes than in the past, and their walk-up early vote margin was too big to overcome, even though we won Election Day turnout. That proved the difference for Obama.
“As to which party does the better job, the jury is still out. Is every Democratic presidential candidate in the future going to carry the same momentum and money as Obama had in 2008? I don’t think so. Nevertheless, preparation for early voting is critical for the future of the Republican Party, and we must invest heavily to stay ahead of the curve,” Jacobs concludes.
Invest and Plan Early
The race to engage voters early touches all aspects of a political campaign. But with the proliferation of blogs, online media outlets and the 24/7 news cycle, political parties and candidates are learning that early voting efforts may be even more critical, especially if a negative story hits a few days before an election. It’s important to bank votes before such coverage sways a voter in a different direction.
Both the Democratic and the Republican National Committees have staff and resources committed to early voting. But to stay ahead of the curve, these efforts should be given a much higher priority.
There are three major steps parties and campaigns need to take going forward.
A stronger national party investment:
Although both major party committees have invested in early voting efforts and appointed staff to lead them, they should create a senior-level early voting position. In the past, this has served as a middle-tier job. Given the early voting trends, the party committees should elevate this position and give it the respect it deserves. Whoever fills the slot should be in the room for senior-level strategy and budgeting meetings and be a part of the campaign’s “inner circle.” Some campaign committees talk the talk with early voting efforts, but those that also walk the walk will have an edge in the future.
Strong state and local party investment:
State party committees typically employ a staffer to oversee the early vote effort, but it’s usually filled by a junior employee who directs the program on top of various other time-consuming responsibilities. (The staffer is also typically hired or moved to the position only weeks before Election Day.) State and local parties need to hire an early voting director much earlier in the campaign cycle—one who is solely dedicated to the program’s organization and success. The early voting director also must have a dedicated field staff to implement the strategy.
Focus on all targeted voters:
The Obama early vote strategy provides an excellent model moving forward. By focusing on all targeted voters— and not just a subset of them—the Obama campaign was able to exceed expectations in the crucial early voting period. By contrast, the McCain campaign tried a more traditional method of targeting—focusing on a subset of its hardcore supporters. According to one McCain senior staffer, “It’s clear the Obama early vote strategy worked best. It worked because they applied their early vote efforts to turning out all targeted voters, not just selected ones. And they made a decision to invest in that strategy to the fullest.”
The strategy worked, but it’s also important to understand how quickly the Obama team moved to begin planning and organizing for early voting, despite just coming off a spirited primary that ended late in the election cycle.
The Trickle-Down Effect
The chaos of campaigns can leave some t’s uncrossed and i’s lacking dots. But a campaign or party committee that has invested, planned and executed a successful early voting effort creates a tighter turnout list for use on the real Election Day. In some
states with early voting, campaigns can actually collect the names of those who have already voted from the state board of elections. A campaign that has strong leadership, organized field teams and resources to collect those lists on a daily or weekly basis can purge the early voter rolls from Election Day turnout operations. This creates a smaller pool of voters for turnout on Election Day and makes the list much more precise and effective. While such targeting is something campaigns have undertaken in the past, the growth of early voting now makes it a bigger—and much more important—project.
Early voting has come light years in just four election cycles, and its appeal to voters lies largely in its convenience, a trend that will only increase in years to come. Political campaign operatives have noticed, and soon their investment (time, people, money) should be on par with Election Day turnout operations. If not, the spoils will go to those candidates and party committees that do make the investment.
An analysis of the 2000 presidential campaign by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs noted that when the Bush DUI story broke, “pollsters detected only a slight drop in Bush’s support.”
But even that slight drop probably swayed the outcome in Florida. Had in-person early voting existed eight years ago in Florida, the Bush campaign may have banked enough early votes to avoid the 36-day recount. Four, eight or twelve years from now, will the same stories be told?
Phillip Stutts is the President of Phillip Stutts & Company, LLC, a political and corporate consulting firm. In 2004, he was the National 72 Hour GOTV Director for the RNC and President Bush’s reelection.