Obama’s Early Lead in Real Voting, and Why It Might Matter

October 19, 2012

Reports indicate that President Obama is ahead in early voting in some important states. (No votes have been counted, his advantage is inferred from the number of absentee and early ballots cast by registered Democrats and Republicans.) But the slice of the electorate that has voted so far is extremely small, so why does this matter?

It could be an indication of voter enthusiasm, showing that the President’s supporters are so eager to re-elect him that they’re rushing to the polls at the first possible chance. But polling on voter enthusiasm doesn't really support this theory. What the early voting advantage shows, I think, is the Obama campaign’s organizational strengths, and their focus on turning out their supporters. If their ability to deliver early voters – a very labor-and-logistically-intensive task – indicates their overall competence at moving voters to the polls, it is a good sign for them.

You can see how important it could be by comparing the “likely voter” poll numbers to the “registered voter” numbers. The very close margins you’re seeing in the presidential polls are all based on likely voters – those who the pollsters determine are probably going to cast a ballot. But underneath those numbers is a second set, including those who are registered but deemed less likely to actually vote. Among that group, the President has a more comfortable (though hardly yawning) lead over Governor Romney. If the Obama campaign can succeed in getting more of those “less likely” voters to show up, they will strengthen his position considerably. And that’s why signs of superior organization mean a lot.

That’s also why Republicans in some states have tightened voter ID laws. When Democrats were in power in Congress, they passed a Motor-Voter law that made it easier to register to vote. (It was called that because you could register when you got your driver’s license.) They wanted to expand the pool of voters on the theory that people who are struggling economically are more focused on daily existence than political participation, so are likely to support the party of activist government. Republican legislatures did essentially the opposite, requiring identification that people at the margins of the economy were less likely to carry.

But I think the voter ID push has led, in part, to the President’s organizational advantage. While the Obama campaign has always -- in 2008 and now -- focused on grassroots mobilization and organization, the new laws pushed them to be even more obsessed with it. They worked to contact voters early, get them the proper documents, and in the process laid the foundation for turning them out to vote. Now that several of the voter ID laws have been suspended or curtailed by courts on Constitutional grounds, that organizational advantage is even more pronounced.

Check here for daily observations on the 2012 presidential campaign and political history, as well as new clips from The Bigger Hammer. Follow @TheBiggerHammer on Twitter to find out when new excerpts are released and where you’ll be able to see the whole film.

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