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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).
Four years ago, Obama won the state overall by three percentage points, buoyed by an eight-point advantage in early voting (60 percent of which was conducted in person).
The GOP-controlled state government has reduced the amount of time allotted to early in-person voting, but Democrats appear to have encouraged more of their supporters to vote by mail this time around.
And McDonald said Democrats are also taking advantage of a provision called the "counter vote," in which voters can request a mail-in ballot in person and fill it out on the spot. It looks almost identical to an in-person vote, but it counts as an absentee mail vote under Florida law.
But with in-person voting not yet underway, we won't have a truly accurate picture of the early vote in Florida until in-person voting begins. But the numbers indicate that the race for Florida will be extremely close as they were in 2008.
In-person early voting began on Monday in Colorado, while absentee voting started ten days ago. Republicans have a slight lead of around 5,500 in ballots cast. That amounts to a 1.7 percentage-point lead. In 2008, when Obama won Colorado, he had a 1.8 percentage-point lead in the early vote when the final tally was made.
Republicans claimed in a memo this week they have the advantage, with a lead of 10,000 in overall votes cast plus absentee ballots requested. But it's still too early to tell who might come out on top. In 2008, 1.7 million voters cast their ballot early and as of Wednesday, only 326,000 had done so. And a large portion of Colorado voters are unaffiliated with either party, so it's almost impossible to tell how they voted.
So again, with Colorado looking close in the polls, it could come down to a photo finish. And the early vote will be critical in deciphering who will win the state, since about seven in ten Coloradans voted before Election Day in 2008, when Obama won by a whopping nine points.
"We've got less data coming out of Colorado, but the early indications are that Colorado is going to be a close state," said McDonald. "I would call it a toss-up."
Democrats are performing well in early voting in the Silver State. Overall, Democrats lead Republicans by more than 9 percentage points with the vast majority of votes (81 percent) coming through early in-person voting.
In the state's biggest jurisdiction, Clark County (anchored by Las Vegas), Democrats have built up a huge 20 percentage-point lead via in-person voting. And in Washoe County, a critical battleground that includes Reno, Democrats lead in-person voting by four percentage points.
When factoring in mail ballots, Democrats lead by 30,000 votes out of 180,000 cast in Clark County, according to Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston, who estimates that a quarter of all people there have already cast ballots.
Republicans are making things slightly closer in both counties with the help of absentee mail ballots. While the GOP is performing significantly better than it did in 2008, Ralston writes: "If the Republicans don't turn this pattern around in the second week, where traditionally voting is higher and closer between the parties, the Dem[o]crats likley [sic] won't get to 2008 levels but may get to 65,000 or so. Unless there is significant partisan hemorraghing [sic] by Obama and unless he is getting killed by indies (no sign of that in any polling), this firewall will be tough for the GOP to pierce."
Again, early voting could make or break the state for either candidate here, since almost 60 percent of Nevada voters cast their ballot early in 2008 when Obama won. And for now, things are again looking up for the Democrats.
Voters do not register by party in Ohio, so it's not as clear cut which party has the edge. That means that Republicans and Democrats have tried to spin the Ohio early vote to their advantage.
The Obama campaign released a memo Thursday saying that early voting is up from 2008 in counties that Obama won in 2008 compared to counties that McCain won. The Obama campaign pointed to a Time magazine pollthat showed Obama winning early voters over Romney 60-30 percent and argued it could help them boost turnout.
To use a real-time example, in Democrat-leaning Franklin County (which includes Columbus), 125,000 people have voted early, which makes up more than 22 percent of total turnout in 2008.
But Republicans put out their own memo arguing that most voters the Democrats are getting to vote early were already inclined to vote Democrat on November 6. That phenomenon is "cannibalizing" their Election Day support, the memo says, claiming that's hurting Democrats in other states where they have a lead like Nevada and Iowa.
Meanwhile, Republicans claim they are targeting so-called "low-propensity" voters who would help them pad turnout by voting early.
In reality, it's impossible to tell whether early voting is reducing or increasing turnout until after Election Day, McDonald says. The polls show Obama with an extremely narrow lead over Romney there. And many more early votes could be on the way. Over 812,000 total have voted early there so far, while 1.5 million voted early there four years ago.
A few words of warning when judging the early vote: these numbers are a snapshot in time. They change literally every single day. And just because Republicans and Democrats have requested ballots and voted doesn't mean they are necessarily supporting their party's guy at the top of the ticket.
Still, early voting numbers give us the earliest glimpse into who is winning and losing in these crucial battlegrounds.
We will do our best to keep you periodically updated and if you're really a numbers junkie, check out McDonald's United States Elections Project.