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Unless you have tried your best to tune out politics the past few weeks, you've heard that early voting has begun in many states across the country.
That's right; in many states you are already able to mail in your completed absentee ballot, and in some cases, vote early in-person at designated polling places. President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney have repeatedly urged voters to cast their ballots before Election Day. And Obama will return to Chicago today to vote early, the first time a sitting president has voted early and in person.
Both campaigns hope they can beat the other in early voting in battleground states so that they can boost overall turnout for their candidate, or at least bank a stronger foundation of support in advance of Election Day.
Many have taken the candidates' advice. More 7.6 million people have already voted with 12 days until Election Day, according to the United States Election Project at George Mason University (GMU). Nearly a quarter of all voters cast their ballot before Election Day in 2008 and it could be an even bigger share this time around.
"It's up everywhere you look," said Prof. Michael McDonald, who runs the election project at GMU.
With real votes already being cast, we can begin to get a picture of which candidate has an advantage in winning the presidency since many states provide the party ID of early voters. But like everything else, it's important to cut through the spin about the early vote. Both campaigns and party committees have bombarded reporters with memos and charts about how their side is winning because of their early voting performance.
So, who is actually doing better?
Republicans hardly had any organization working on early voting four years ago, allowing Obama's finely tuned ground operation to effectively exploit it. But this year the GOP is working to eat away at the Democrats' advantage. That's helped them make certain states like North Carolina, where Obama barely eked out a win with the 21-point early-vote advantage, are easier for them to win. But will it be enough to overcome Obama's efforts?
"Romney is doing better than McCain who had essentially no operation for early voting. But, we expect when you go from nothing to something you are going to do better," said McDonald.
In other cases, like Iowa, Democrats are essentially matching their 2008 performance. Here we take a look at how four of the closest toss-up states -- Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and Ohio – are playing out.
Over 1 million people have already voted in Florida via absentee ballot as of Thursday, about 10 percent of the likely overall electorate, the Miami Herald reported.
Republicans have an early advantage. Out of all the ballots cast so far, Republicans have submitted 54,000 more than Democrats, a five percentage point advantage.
But Democrats point out that early in-person voting does not begin until Saturday, October 27; and that's the format where Democrats usually claim an advantage over Republicans. Additionally, Republicans had a larger lead in mail ballots in 2008 (12 percentage points, according to McDonald. The Herald reports a 16-point advantage for Democrats in '08).