Monday, September 29, 2008

Democrats Have, and Need, Early Vote Lead

Democrats take estimated 30,000-vote lead in Iowa

Five weeks before Election Day, Barack Obama likely has a lead of more than 30,000 votes in Iowa, based on absentee ballot requests. But Democrats will need to continue their early voting blitz--they won the early vote in 2004 only to lose by a bigger margin on Election Day.

Through Thursday, the first day of in-person early voting, there were 62,024 absentee requests statewide from Democrats and 18,558 from-republicans. People not affiliated with a party have made 23,460 requests, and another 35 are from Greens and Libertarians.

Republicans will likely close that gap, though not all the way, before Election Day. Democratic early voting efforts in recent years have focused on door-to-door canvassing through the summer months. Republicans have responded later in the game with mass mailings, usually featuring a message from the state's most popular Republican, Senator Chuck Grassley. A 2006 mailing featured wrestling legend Dan GAble, but President Bush has been absent in recent years.

Let's make some assumptions on how the early ballots requested so fat break out. Let's say Democrats vote 90 percent for Obama and Republicans 90 percent for McCain. Let's also guess that independents break 55 to 45 for Obama, which is about where current state polling stands. Those percentages, and one more assumption, project to a 33,000 vote Obama lead five weeks before Election Day.

The last assumption, based on typical rates from past years, is that 95 percent of the requested ballots from party members and 5 percent do not. For independents, figure that 10 percent don't come back. Since they're not a sure thing, party staffers and volunteers are less likely to aggressively "chase" those voters and encourage them to get their ballots in.

That attrition rate reduces Obama's estimated lead by about 3,000. which is a lot when you consider that Bush won the state in 2004 by 10,000 votes and Gore carried Iowa in 2000 by only 4,000. The attrition rate may also be a reason why Democrats have shifted strategy this year to encourage more in-person early voting at auditor's offices and satellite sites. In-person early voters fill out their paperwork with the office staff standing by to help explain the origami of envelopes, and there's a 100 percent return rate as voters hand the ballot right in.

In 2004, Democrats went into election day with a John Kerry lead of 71,868 votes. But Kerry lost the Election Day vote by 81,920, for a Bush win of 10,052.

In Polk County, and more than a dozen others, Bush won the 2004 Election Day vote, but Kerry won the absentee by a wider margin and carried the county overall. Part of that, of course, was that Democratic voters voluntarily took themselves out of the Election Day voting pool. But most of it was Democratic and 527 absentee ballot efforts.

In the only other 2004 statewide race, the U.S. Senate contest, under-funded Democrat Art Small lost the Election Day vote to Grassley by more than three to one. But Small had a relatively respectable 38 percent of the absentee vote, indicating that a lot of those early voters were straight ticket Democrats.

Polls are showing a solid Obama lead in Iowa, and McCain didn't help himself by loudly proclaiming his opposition to ethanol subsidies in Friday's debate. Yet he hasn't written the state off, as evidenced by his planned visit to Des Moines Tuesday.

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