Early Voting Changes Campaign Strategy

There was a time when Americans voted on Election Day and no other time. Absentee ballots have been available for decades but have been a tiny portion of the total cast. However, when states began adopting early voting, allowing votes to be cast in person before Election Day, they changed the rules, and that always has an effect on the way any game is played. The effects have yet to be studied in detail, owing to the newness of the phenomenon. However, a few things are apparent.

First off, the Get Out The Vote efforts of a campaign no longer focus on the last 36 or 48 hours of a campaign. GOTV now extends out weeks before the formal balloting. That means that field offices and volunteers need to be on the job for more than a couple days, and that means they need to be less casual about their actions. Organization always wins elections. Early voting merely enhances that fact.

Second, early voting means that October Surprises no longer have the same effect they have had in past elections. A sudden and unexpected development that swings the vote by a few percentage points in the waning days of the campaign don’t matter as much when many ballots were cast in September. Campaign operatives speak of banking votes, and by that, they mean building up their vote totals in pursuit of their “win number” [the number of votes they believe they need to win] by getting supporters to vote early.

Yesterday, Donald Trump appealed to Democrats who had already voted for Mrs. Clinton and were suffering a “bad case of buyer’s remorse.” He informed them they could change their votes. In some cases, the states allow that. CNN reports an early vote can be changed in Wisconsin; Minnesota; Michigan; Pennsylvania; New York; Connecticut; and Mississippi. They can’t in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Arizona, among others. The Trump campaign claims it can turn Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan or Pennsylvania — one doubts that. However, in states that really could swing the election, a vote change is not allowed. Thus, the importance of banking the votes.

Third, pollsters have relied on exit polls to forecast elections on the final day of the campaign, but that is now passe. TargetSmart, a DC polling entity, and William and Mary College (Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater), have polled people in Florida differently from the way it has ever been done before. It is a matter of public record as to who has voted (but not how). NewsMax explained, “TargetSmart’s Tom Bonier told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell on Tuesday night his firm’s methodology is more accurate because his pollsters call a random sample of the actual 3.6 million voters who already have cast early ballots and ask them how they cast their ballots, as well as obtain demographic data about them. We can construct a sample that’s perfectly representative of the people who’ve voted so far,’ Bonier said.”

That is significant because the poll done in Florida shows “Clinton’s 8 percent lead is a combination of early voters and those who identify as likely voters, but when counting only those who have already cast votes in person or by mail, Clinton leads 17 points, 55-38 percent.” Moreover, “Clinton has won 28 percent of registered Republicans, while Trump has been able to pick up only 6 percent or registered Democrats.”

There is a week to go, and these data are useful (if the methodology is accurate) to both the Clinton and Trump camps. The Clintonistas can assess whether they need more resources in Florida, can back off and redeploy resources elsewhere, and they can fine-tune their GOTV efforts. The Trump effort can decide whether Clinton is too far ahead and work to get electoral votes elsewhere or whether her lead is inadequate and they can take Florida. And if the data can be applied to the nation as a whole, further refinement of the last week strategies is possible.