The State of the Early Vote

The key to understanding what early voting turnout means is to look at the significant gap between how Democrats say they plan to vote and how Republicans say they plan to vote. Polling from Gallup and Marist indicates that over 60 percent of Democrats plan to vote early, either in-person or by mail, while only 28 percent of Republicans say they intend to vote early. This gap varies at the state level but the overall trend of Democratic voters’ preference for early voting is fairly consistent. 

This makes sense given that Democrats tend to have greater fear of potential COVID-19 exposure, while Republicans’ preference for in-person voting is driven by fears that early voting is more susceptible to fraud and sabotage. There is potentially some response falsification here—Democrats like to adhere performatively to COVID guidelines. But as we’ve seen with the Black Lives Matter protests, they will ditch social distancing in a heartbeat when swept up in a cause. 

That caveat aside, and taking the preferences at face value, Democrats not only have to carry the early vote, they have to carry it overwhelmingly to offset the much stronger Republican vote on Election Day. They are showing early voting strength in some battleground states, but others tell a much different story—one that is completely at odds with many of the voter preference polls. 

Florida 

One of the major bright spots for Republicans in early voting is Florida. Republicans actually have taken the lead in in-person early votes in Miami-Dade County, an accomplishment that previously was unthinkable. 

Democrats still have the edge on mail-in voting, but the strong in-person early vote showing by Republicans should give the Biden camp pause—this suggests that Democrats really are avoiding polling places and barricading in their houses.

Trump’s surprisingly strong showing in South Florida also confirms that his increased strength with Latinos is real, particularly here. Florida may be the state with the most significant swing among Latinos towards Trump. And it’s not just because of the Cubans as in years past. Trump has also seen strong gains with Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Brazilians, and Colombians. This works to his advantage in Florida particularly, where these communities make up a larger share of the Latino population than in other states. 

Statewide, Democrats lead early voting by a paltry 2.4 percent and the gap is closing. 

Arizona 

Democrats had a strong early vote lead here that is rapidly evaporating. They lead total returned ballots here only 39.7 percent to 35.6 percent with Republicans closing the gap. Republicans also have taken an early vote lead in the bellwether county of Maricopa. 

If Biden’s campaign thought that people who have recently moved to Arizona from California, Illinois, and New York were going to flip the state, they should think again. Polling shows that first-generation residents are Trump’s strongest group. This is also applicable to Texas, longtime fever dream of the Democrats’ consultant class. Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) 2018 reelection was powered by voters who had moved to the state while Beto O’Rourke won the native Texan vote.

North Carolina 

Democrats had a strong early vote lead here. That lead has now fallen to around 285,000 votes. Their early vote lead in 2016 was 310,000 votes on Election Day. They went on to lose the state by three points to Donald Trump. 

Critically for Democrats, black turnout is even lower than the anemic levels it was already in 2016. As a result, the Democrat-controlled state government has extended it’s absentee ballot deadline to nine days past Election Day. This is a state that Republicans need to watch very closely for election fraud. 

Pennsylvania 

Here’s one where the Democrats actually have executed their early voting operation well. They lead early voting by 1,190,000 to 360,000. 

Pennsylvania, however, has also been the single most egregious state for election corruption in this election. Trump ballots have been discarded by election judges and workers. My gut is that this has particularly suppressed early voting by Trump supporters in Pennsylvania, who are waiting instead to cast their ballots in-person on Election Day. 

While the Democrats have an eye-popping early vote lead in Pennsylvania, they still have to come up with more than 1.7 million votes just to match the number of votes cast for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Trump turned out nearly 3 million Pennsylvanians on Election Day in 2016. If he does it again, he may well carry Pennsylvania. 

Michigan

Republicans actually are leading the early vote here, 41 percent to 39 percent. The lockdown strategy carried out by Governor Gretchen Whitmer was particularly harsh and has led to a sustained backlash that has pushed Michigan’s Democratic establishment to the brink. Trump is also buoyed by his record here. He promised a return of manufacturing jobs and he delivered. 

There is talk that Biden campaign internal polls show him just behind the president, and that is borne out by the campaign’s decision to send Biden and Obama there on Saturday. It may be too little, too late. So far only 276,000 Democrats have voted early in the Democratic stronghold of Wayne County (Detroit and it’s suburbs), lagging their 2016 vote total there by 240,000 votes. 

Wisconsin

Democrats carried the early vote in Wisconsin by 11 points in 2016. Now, Republicans are leading in early votes returned, 43 percent to 36 percent. Not the result you expect from a state where a Washington Post/ABC poll had Biden up 17 points. 

Now for the wildcards. These are states that are more likely than not to go for Biden, but also show some signs they could end up closer than expected or even flip to Trump.

Nevada 

Surprisingly, same-day voter registration and voting is favoring Republicans and, in recent days, cutting into Democrats’ early vote firewall. Rural turnout is also much stronger than in ‘16, which favors Trump. The main unknown variables here are: how hampered by COVID measures are the Culinary Workers Union members who are the backbone of the Democrats’ voter turnout operation in Nevada? Will there be a late surge of Democratic votes in Clark County on Monday? And has Trump significantly improved his margin with Latinos in Nevada as he has in other states? 

Virginia

Virginia has come to be seen as a safe blue state, but its electorate can vary widely. Huge swings from one party to another in successive election years are not uncommon. Neither are wide gaps between the polling averages and official results. 

One indicator of the possibility of a surprise is that while in 2016 white voters made up 67 percent of the electorate in Virginia, this year, they make up 78 percent of the early vote returns. And while non-college-educated white voters only made up 29 percent of the overall 2016 electorate in Virginia, this year they make up 42.5 percent of the early vote returns. 

Meanwhile, college-educated whites have declined from 38 percent of the electorate to 35.6 percent of the early vote returns. What does that mean? Historically, Virginia Republicans have done well in absentee voting while Democratic turnout operations have driven a strong in-person vote. This year we would have expected to see whites overall and especially non-college whites as a much smaller percentage of the early vote electorate relative to 2016 as Democrats shift to early voting. But even with nearly five times as many early votes cast as the total early vote total in 2016, the early vote is still dominated by white voters. Democrats will need a strong minority showing on election day to maintain a favorable electorate in Virginia, otherwise Biden could be in the danger zone. This would be the big upset of election night.

Colorado 

Democrats lead the early vote returns in Colorado by just under eight points. They could still win the Election Day vote, or hold it to a draw, but we see a similar effect as in Virginia where the white non-college-educated share of the electorate is nine points higher than it was in 2016.

So what are the known unknowns here? 

The COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected the mechanics of electoral politics has pushed us into uncharted territory. The Democrats surfed a blue wave in 2018 largely on the strength of their ground game. Hillary’s campaign, for all of its faults, had a very strong field operation and get-out-the-vote machine. This year, the Democrats’ ground game is virtually nonexistent. It’s been replaced by internet broadcasts from Joe Biden’s basement bunker and Kamala Harris twerking in front of six people in a parking lot. 

The closing of in-person classes at colleges and universities across the country has eliminated the student voter registration and turnout drives responsible for so much of the Democrats’ base vote. The voting process differential itself can cost Biden a significant number of votes; technical issues like ballots not being enclosed in the second secret envelope can result in their rejection. In states like Pennsylvania where Democrats are overwhelmingly voting by mail, this could cost Biden one to two points from his margin. 

“Shy Trump” and Other “X” Factors

A summer of violent riots and online lynch mobs has made open support for the president physically dangerous to his supporters in inner-suburban and urban areas. By a 56 percent to 40 percent margin, Americans tell Gallup they are better off than they were four years ago. Is Joe Biden really the candidate who is going to break the paradigm of Americans voting for the interests of themselves and their families? 

And now more than ever, the conditions for “shy” Trump voters creating a polling response bias are there. Stated preferences are one thing, revealed preferences are another. Since the last election we have seen a rise in constant scam calls from spoofed numbers. What effect does that have on who answers their phones? And do Democrats have a polling response bias of their own? Have they been widely exaggerating their propensity to vote early and vote by mail? 

Fact is, there is much that is still unknown, and that can’t be known until the votes are actually cast and tallied on Election Night. 

Biden could win as a result of the relentless psychological operations carried out against the American people over the last several years. Or Trump could sweep the battlegrounds in a series of close wins and earn a resounding Electoral College victory as Ronald Reagan did against Jimmy Carter in 1980. Or the hidden vote is much larger than anyone thought and he wins in a bloodbath that includes a popular vote victory. 

The key takeaway is to not get complacent. Trump is positioned to win, potentially by a very strong margin in the Electoral College. But for this to happen, he’s going to need a very strong Election Day turnout. 

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2 responses to “The State of the Early Vote”

  1. There are actually only a handful of states – all of which you have dutifully reported – who will tell you the breakdown by party of early-voter registrations. But, early IN-PERSON voting has been happening in large numbers all over the nation this year, and I think it’s “the new normal.” After all, who really wants to wait in long lines, in the cold and in the dark, on “one particular day in November?” Technologically speaking, that’s no longer necessary. You can now vote IN-PERSON at your convenience over a period of about three weeks … exactly as you would “on Tuesday” … and, what’s not to love about that? This combination of security-plus-convenience will also significantly improve voter participation.

  2. Voting should be like going to the DMV. It should be a pain in the butt and a hassle to ensure only those at least somewhat engaged will take the time to actually do it. We don’t need to improve voter participation. We need to improve the QUALITY of the voter. Else elections will become one giant American Idol episode.