By now, even the most casual follower of politics has heard about the early voting data. In recent election cycles, most states have permitted voters to cast ballots weeks ahead of the first Tuesday in November for no reason other than a desire to avoid waiting in line on Election Day.
Since detailed data began to be gathered on early voting a decade ago, the punditocracy has placed increased emphasis on these numbers. Indeed, with the discussion the press is now having about the trends from the votes cast, one could say that “early voting” is the new “exit voting” in terms of spawning analysis and predictions.
And to use a phrase of conservative author M. Stanton Evans, “this is moonshine.”
Right now, everyone appears to have an interpretation of the early voting trends. Writing in the Washington Post, reporter Karen Tumulty pointed out that a Democratic consulting firm told its clients that voting data indicated “that early ballots in 17 states. . . looks very much like that in 2006, the year the Democrats took back the House and Senate.”
One is tempted to say, based on historical statistics, that this supposed trend indicates nothing. The National Annenberg Election Study found that in 2000, George W. Bush won 63% of the early vote, and in 2004, he won 60% of it, but he won by much tighter margins both times.
Referring to Tumulty’s report of favorable early voting for Democrats, political analyst Nate Silver notes that “[t]his year, on average, the early vote has favored the Democrats in these states by an average of 2 points. But in ’08, it favored them by an average of about 17 points—making for a 15-point swing against them.”
Silver, himself a Democrat, concluded, “[C]ertainly there are a number of ambiguities when conducting this sort of analysis. ‘Late’ voters, for instance, could turn out to be systematically different than early voters for any of a number of reasons. And whereas pollsters are comparing the standing of Democratic and Republican candidates under different assumptions about turnout, the early voting figures instead reflect the number of Democratic and Republican voters in each state.”
Put another way, as this is being written, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has just released figures showing that in the absentee ballots being returned, 53,226 have come from registered Republicans compared to only 37,631 by registered Democrats. The Democrats have returned 55% of the absentee ballots they requested, and the Republicans have returned 67%. Does that mean that Republican statewide candidates Pat Toomey for U.S. Senator and Tom Corbett for governor, both of whom hold narrow leads in most polls over their Democratic opponents, are headed for landslide wins?
Landslide wins for Toomey and Corbett are not outside the realm of possibility. But it would be nothing less than stunning if they won by the margins being suggested by early voting and the return of absentee ballots in The Keystone State.
Michael Barone, the father of the Almanac of American Politics, observed, “My reading of today’s [early voting] is that Republicans are probably doing disproportionately well in most states where you can measure how many registered Democrats and Republicans have voted.” Democrats are doing well in other states. All told, it probably won’t matter too much when all the votes come in November 2nd—the real election day.