Early voting a boost for Dems

— -- Democrats are voting early in greater numbers than their Republican counterparts in several closely contested states, reversing a pattern that favored the GOP in past elections.

The trend is evident in Ohio, North Carolina and Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico, state and county figures show. In Georgia, blacks are voting in greater numbers than they did in 2004.

The early voting trend is about even in Colorado. Republicans claim the edge among absentee voters in Florida, but Democrats are voting in far greater numbers at early voting polling places where voters lined up this week.

"This is like a mirror image of what we've seen in the past," says Paul Gronke of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College. "This cannot be good news for John McCain. It's the 100-yard dash, and (Barack) Obama is already 20 yards ahead."

"It looks good for Barack Obama right now," says Michael McDonald, an elections expert at George Mason University who tracks early voting patterns.

Election officials caution against quick conclusions. "We've still got a long ways to go," says Gary Bartlett, director of North Carolina's Board of Elections.

The District of Columbia and 34 states allow early in-person voting. All states accept absentee ballots. Up to one-third of all voters are expected to vote before Election Day, up from 20% in 2004 and 15% in 2000, Gronke says.

Election records in many states show whether voters are affiliated with a political party or are independent. States that must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, such as Georgia and North Carolina, also show racial breakdowns. No votes will be counted until Nov. 4.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe says he gauges success by early voters' party affiliation or whether they live in largely Democratic areas. In bellwether Ohio, for instance, he says, "We really like where these votes are coming from."

Republicans say Democrats are wasting their time pushing loyalists to the polls early. "They only get to vote once," quips Rich Beeson, political director for the Republican National Committee. In contrast, the GOP targets "low-propensity" voters who might not come out on Election Day.

Indications of who's voting early, based on election data and interviews:

• Florida:Republicans outnumber Democrats in absentee voting by nearly 3-to-2 among 630,000 voters, according to the state Republican Party. But Democrats are closing that gap in early in-person voting; Monday's opening day produced nearly a 2-to-1 advantage for Democrats among 150,000 voters, says McDonald at George Mason University. President Bush carried the state with 52% in 2004.

• Ohio:In Cuyahoga County, which Democrat John Kerry won by a 2-to-1 margin in 2004, nearly 45,000 people who affiliate with Democrats in primary elections have cast ballots, compared to 10,000 who vote in GOP primaries. In Hamilton County, where Bush won 53% in 2004, three in five early voters are affiliated with Democrats.

• North Carolina:Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1 among 480,000 early voters. Bush won the state in 2004 with 56%.

• Georgia:More than 750,000 people have voted, nearly 25% of the 2004 total. Voters don't register by party, but 36% of early voters are black — up from 22% in 2004.

• Colorado:More than 150,000 people have voted absentee by mail. The party ratio — 81,000 Republicans, 76,000 Democrats — roughly matches overall registration.

• Iowa:Nearly 200,000 people have voted so far, including 100,000 Democrats and 54,000 Republicans. That's a greater ratio than 2004, when 194,000 Democrats and 141,000 Republicans voted early. Bush won Iowa in 2004 by 10,000 votes.

• Nevada:In Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, Democrats outnumber Republicans in early and absentee voting by a 2-to-1 margin — higher than their 60%-40% registration edge and Kerry's 52%-47% margin in 2004.

•New Mexico:More than 230,000 people have voted early or absentee, and Democrats have a 62%-to-38% advantage over Republicans. That's about the same as the Democratic registration edge in a state that Bush won by 6,000 votes in 2004.

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate at American University, says the trend may show the impact of Obama's get-out-the-vote effort. "It might indicate an advantage, at least out of the early voting figures, for the Democratic Party," he says. But Republicans could close that gap, he notes.

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