Political insiders are keeping a close eye on two mostly-overlooked campaign dynamics that could change or cement the outcome of the 2012 presidential election: early voting and third party candidates.
One is a relatively new trend, the other an age-old tradition, but either – or both – could be decisive this year.
So who has the advantage? Mitt Romney or Barack Obama?
People started voting Thursday in the swing state of Iowa. Yes, in September. By Tuesday of next week, voting will be underway in the battleground-of-all-battleground states, Ohio. Come Election Day, more than 35 percent of voters nationally will have already cast ballots – and that includes more than 70 percent of the electorate in the swing states of Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, and perhaps Florida.
The growing trend of early voting is changing the modern presidential campaign as we know it.
In 1992, less than one in 12 votes was cast early. By 2008, 40 million people had jumped on the bandwagon – with early voting accounting for almost one in three votes.
Today, early voting is now allowed in more than 30 states – and some estimate as many as 45 million people will have already cast ballots by the time the masses vote on Tues. Nov. 6.
If the early voters are going to vote eventually anyway, why might early voting impact the outcome of the race? A few reasons:
Early voting can be a buffer against bad news. Late comebacks or late collapses become less likely when fewer people are able to adjust their votes based on changing circumstances. If, for example, there was a stock market downturn in late October, President Obama would be somewhat protected from a negative reaction at the ballot box, because that 50-to-70 percent of the votes in key states would already be locked in. (I witnessed the opposite effect in 2000, when on the Thursday before Election Day, a reporter revealed a DUI arrest record from 1976 for George W. Bush. Bush admitted the next day to the never before disclosed arrest. Saturation coverage proceeded over the remaining five days, whittling away our vote total in Florida. Had it been 2012 rather than 2000, half of Florida would have already voted, and would be unable to change their votes. The Bush margin likely would have been more substantial — avoiding the need for a recount.)
By not having to waste precious voter contact resources on those who have already cast ballots, campaign field operations can focus on non-early voting battlegrounds in the critically important final 72 hours.
The explosion of on-line media and cheap polling means that “exit” polls of early voting states may be available for the first time, generating favorable coverage for one candidate and demoralizing the campaign of the other candidate in states that have yet to vote.
In 2012, candidates outside of the major party nominees may garner enough votes in Nevada, Colorado and Virginia to change the outcome.
Few remember that in 2008 Libertarian candidate (and former Republican congressman) Bob Barr earned enough votes in Missouri and North Carolina to deny John McCain a victory in those states.
More remember the 2000 race, where if the 97,488 votes cast for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in Florida had gone to Al Gore, his vote share would have easily eclipsed the 537 vote margin that resulted in Bush’s victory.
This year’s third party candidates include former New Mexico Republican Governor Gary Johnson, Massachusetts’ Jill Stein and former Republican Congressman Virgil Goode of Virginia.
Johnson is on the ballot in 47 states for the Libertarian Party; Stein in at least 32 states for the Green Party; Goode in more than 20 states for the Constitution Party.
As the former Republican governor of a nearby Western state, Johnson may well cut into Romney’s numbers in Colorado and Nevada. In a close race, that could be the difference.
Stein is mostly a non-factor.
Goode’s impact would only be in Virginia, but as the six-term Republican representative of one of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts, just a 20 percent showing in his old district could translate into two points off Romney’s numbers statewide.
So between Obama and Romney, who stands to benefit from these two nuances of the 2012 campaign?
The early voting advantage goes to Obama. His campaign, which successfully navigated early voting in 2008, has invested heavily in field operations this time around. His current lead in the polls means he’s getting a higher share of votes being cast now. Thus, early voting minimizes the vote share available to Romney to mount a comeback. In addition, as time passes, the President builds some immunity to losing votes as a result of bad economic news.
The third party candidate advantage makes President Obama two for two, as the only candidates likely to garner significant votes are former Republicans well-positioned in three vital states to hurt Mitt Romney.