Why Obama and Romney Are Courting Early Voters

Both Obama and Romney will be aggressively targeting those voting by absentee ballot.

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Many will cast their votes for president before Election Day. Michael McDonald, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and associate professor at George Mason University, says that this year both presidential campaigns are paying attention to the growing trend of early voting. McDonald, an expert on early voting, recently spoke with U.S. News about how this will likely impact the election and what it means for the electoral process. Excerpts:

Will more people vote early in 2012?

Yes. We've seen an upward trajectory of early voting over the past decade or so. In 2004, about 20 percent of all voters voted prior to Election Day. And in 2008, that number went from 20 percent to 30 percent. Likely we're going to see an increase again.

Why the trend?

It turns out people just like voting early. There's no other way of putting it.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Are campaigns targeting early voters?

Absolutely. Once a person either votes in person early or once a person requests an absentee ballot, that information is tracked by the local election officials, and they share that back with the campaigns. So the campaigns know, for example, in a mail ballot state if a voter has a ballot in their hand and when they've returned it. So certainly a campaign is going to call them up on the phone, they're going to send people to their door, they're going to encourage them to cast that ballot for their candidate. And as soon as that voter casts that ballot, they are going to stop; they're going to go on to other voters.

Was this an important strategy in 2008?

For the Obama campaign, early voting was an integral part of their strategy. The McCain campaign, on the other hand, was just sort of flat-footed on early voting. The soonest that we saw McCain and Palin talk about early voting was the week before the election, and states had already launched the early voting period way before that. It was an afterthought for the McCain campaign. Early vote looked very pro-Obama in 2008.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Will this year's early voters look different?

If early voting is going to be important to the Romney campaign—and they've already shown that it is by developing mobilization drives during the primaries—and the Romney campaign certainly has sufficient resources to throw at mobilizing people to vote early, I expect that in 2012 we're going to see more parity between the Obama and Romney supporters in terms of early voters.

How will the battleground states be affected?

As soon as early voting starts in these battleground states, we're going to see the candidates show up. In North Carolina in 2008, you saw a spike in early voting in these places where the Obama campaign was holding these rallies.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

Why was that happening?

Well, either they would have the rally and then say, "Hey, everyone go across the street to that polling location and go vote for us." Or they also gave preferential seating to people who had "I Voted" stickers on. I'm certain the Romney campaign is going to be doing the same thing.

Does this affect the electoral process?

I'm not so much worried about that dynamic in the presidential election. But at the same time these people are going to be encouraged to vote for the presidential candidates, there are going to be state and local elections on the ballot too, and they don't have the same resources. And what we don't know is how early voting affects those state and local campaigns.