Oct. 27, 2010 -- With less than a week to go until Election Day, more than 9.4 million Americans have already cast their ballots in what experts say could be a banner midterm election season for early voting.
More than 1.5 million people have voted early in California, 1.2 million in Florida, 237,000 in Iowa and 266,000 in Nevada. Those numbers are likely to be lowball estimates, since some counties have been slow to report early voting statistics.
Local newspaper headlines from around the country tell the story. It's shaping up to be a record-breaking year in places like Polk County, Iowa; Kanawha County, West Virginia; Tazewell County, Illinois and Travis County, Texas. In St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, where early voting ended on Tuesday, the line to cast a ballot stretched out the door.
"It looks like we're on track to beat 2006," said George Mason University political scientist Michael McDonald, who has been tracking the early vote almost around the clock. "It's not clear if we're going to get up to 2008 levels yet."
Republicans and Democrats can point to key states and counties where they are out in front, and neither party has passed up the opportunity to spin the returns in their favor.
On Wednesday the Democratic National Committee released a memo dismissing the notion that Democrats were the ones facing an enthusiasm gap this year, saying that in 11 key states Democrats were doing better than their GOP counterparts in early voting.
"The results to date are not only not consistent with the existence of a Republican enthusiasm gap," the DNC memo said, "they show that in key races Democrats are winning."
Democrats pointed to their early voting advantage in Nevada, Iowa, California Wisconsin, Washington state, Illinois and West Virginia.
"If Republicans were more enthusiastic in 2010, they would see significantly higher early vote across all levels of vote history than Democrats," said the DNC memo. "Most importantly, sporadic Republicans would consistently out-turnout sporadic Democrats in early voting. This hasn't materialized in early vote."
But in other important states like Colorado, Florida and Pennsylvania, the GOP is in the lead -- a fact that the Republican National Committee highlighted in a memo on Tuesday that argued the Democratic enthusiasm gap was alive and well.
Early Votiing: Both Parties Claim Lead
"Democrat claims of a stronger ground game are contradicted by the data and appear to be a brazen attempt to motivate a depressed base," the RNC memo said. "Combined with our traditional Election Day turnout advantage, this kind of absentee and early voting performance will drive Republican victories all over the country."
In Nevada, for example, the RNC said that Democrats enjoy a 5 percent party registration advantage and led Republicans in 2008 in absentee and early voters. But with roughly 266,000 votes cast so far, the GOP appears to be running neck-and-neck with Democrats.
Nevada is shaping up to be something of a bellwether state for early voting. During the 2006 midterm election nearly 52 percent of all those who cast ballots voted early, and in 2008 the early-vote share rose to nearly 67 percent. As Professor McDonald put it, "Nevada is a state where Election Day is really the last day of the early voting period."
In Iowa Democrats held a 17-percentage-point lead in the early vote heading into Election Day in 2008. According to the GOP memo, "That lead has been cut to 7.04 percent so far this year (45.20 to 38.16 percent). As a percentage of total votes cast, Republicans have increased by 9 percent while Democrats have shrunk."
But Democratic Party officials tend to reject outright comparisons to 2008. Instead, they contend that a more accurate way to measure how each party will fare is to look at those who have voted in previous midterm elections, in presidential-year elections only and first time voters in 2008. In Iowa and several other states, Democratic early voters in these three groups are largely holding their own, and in some cases, exceeding Republicans.
Although McDonald agreed that there are positive signs for Democrats in the early voting numbers, he said that accurate comparisons to previous years were difficult to make. His prediction: the fair comparison this year is somewhere in between 2008 and 2006.
"We are in uncharted waters when it comes to early voters," McDonald said. "We really don't know where we're going to end up."