Early voting in the 2014 U.S. midterm elections has been underway across the country for weeks, providing an early look at how the candidates may fare come Election Day. With control of the U.S. Senate on the line, analysts are watching key races from Georgia to South Dakota.
Nationwide, voters had already cast 9.8 million early votes in the 2014 midterm Senate elections as of Tuesday, according to data compiled by the University of Florida’s United States Election Project.
The total tally on the eve of Election Day will be viewed as a crucial indicator of candidates’ prospects. Early voting is seen as an important bellwether, and its importance has grown in recent years as early voting has begun earlier and attracted more voters.
"In reality, the days of an actual election 'day' are long gone," Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida with expertise in elections and voter turnout, told the Los Angeles Times last month. "It's a solid election month, if not more in some places, and will continue to expand."
Keep in mind that party affiliation isn't a perfect measure of how many people are voting for any given candidate or how well a party will do on Election Day. It simply quantifies how much turnout the parties have received to date, a statistic that some look to as a measure of how energized the parties’ voters are heading into the election.
In recent years, Democrats have typically reaped significantly greater electoral rewards from early voting programs than Republicans have, as they are generally better able to mobilize voters ahead of Election Day -- in large part because of the demographics of their respective voting bases.
"Ever since Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign emphasized 'locking in' or 'banking' early votes, Ohio Democrats have outperformed Republicans in getting supporters to vote before Election Day -- especially with early, in-person voting," the Columbus Dispatch noted earlier this month.
As a response to that fact (which holds true across most of the country), Republican-led legislatures in states including North Carolina and West Virginia have passed laws limiting early voting that are widely expected to hamper Democrats' chances of winning U.S. Senate races in those states.
Here’s a breakdown of how early voting is going so far in five states with important U.S. Senate races this election cycle. Alaska and New Hampshire, two of this year's other key Senate races, aren't listed because Alaska has yet to make any early voting data publicly available and New Hampshire doesn't allow its electorate to vote early.
The GOP has the jump on early voting in the Centennial State, where Republican Rep. Cory Gardner is hoping to unseat first-term Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. As of Monday, registered Republicans have cast 42.8 percent of the 660,113 votes issued since early voting began Oct. 20, while 32.4 of votes cast were by Democrats, according to data posted on Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s website. The remaining 24.8 percent were cast by unaffiliated voters or registered members of other parties. Turnout is relatively high, as 660,113 is equal to 36.1 percent of the more than 1.8 million votes cast in the 2010 election.
"In Colorado, where elections are being conducted entirely by mail this year, Republicans built a big advantage thanks to early votes from rural counties," the Washington Post reported Tuesday. "That advantage shrank as Denver reported additional votes on Monday, though Republican leads in suburban Arapahoe and Jefferson Counties have Democrats nervous."
In Georgia, Republican former Reebok CEO David Perdue is vying against former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn’s daughter Michelle Nunn, a Democrat on leave from her position as CEO of the charitable Points of Light Foundation, to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. A breakdown of early voters by party affiliation was not immediately available Tuesday, but Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office has released other data about the contest, including the fact that 522,364 votes have been cast, the equivalent of 19.9 percent of the more than 2.6 million filed in 2010.
A SurveyUSA poll released Tuesday showed that Nunn has lost ground to Perdue over the past week, as her 48 percent to 45 percent lead vanished. As of Tuesday, she is trailing Perdue, 46 percent to 44 percent. Though Nunn is behind in the new poll, the race is within the plus-or-minus 4 percent margin of error, and the contest's volatility means the race is still open.
Iowa is one of the hottest Senate races this year. The Hawkeye State, which plays a key role in presidential elections, is looking to replace retiring Democrat Tom Harkin. The race between Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst and Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley is attracting a lot of attention, but early voting figures offer little insight into how the hotly contested race will end up.
As of Monday, 322,625 absentee ballots had been returned, 41.2 percent of which were completed by Democrats, 40.1 percent by Republicans, 18.5 percent by unaffiliated voters and less than 0.2 percent by Green and Libertarian Party members, according to data released by Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz. Turnout has been relatively high in the state as 322,625 votes is equal to 28.5 percent of the more than 1.1 million votes that were cast in the 2010 election.
"The one thing the Democrats had us beat on for years was this early voting, and we're taking that away from them," Republican Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said recently, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s bid to beat Republican Thom Tillis and hold on to her seat for a second six-year term is showing promise, according to early voting results. Out of 461,270 total absentee ballots returned between Oct. 23 and the morning of Oct. 28, 48.4 percent of them were cast by registered Democrats, 31.3 were returned by Republicans, 20.1 percent were cast by unaffiliated voters and 0.15 were issued by Libertarian Party members, according to data released by the North Carolina State Board of Elections. Voting totals are also favoring Hagan, as 223,348 Democrats, or 8.1 percent of voters registered with the party, have returned ballots, while just 144,387 Republicans, or 7.2 percent of registered GOP members, have done so.
"[V]oters in N.C. are turning out early at a much faster rate this year than in 2010," Jacob Canter, a researcher at Reed College's Early Information Center in Portland, Oregon, wrote Tuesday. "So much faster, in fact, that, with eight days until Election Day, the proportion of Democrats to vote early this year is already the same as the proportion to vote eight days out in 2010. Again, that’s with five fewer days to vote."
Former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds will face off against former Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, who is running as an independent this cycle, and Democrat Rick Weiland to take the seat of retiring Democrat Tim Johnson. The state does not provide much in the way of information about early voting, but as of Monday, 31,213 absentee ballots had been received out of 37,094 requested, according to data released by South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant. Early voting has turned out significantly lower South Dakota voters this year than in 2010, according to Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"This is a much slower early voting pace than other states with hotly contested Senate races," McDonald wrote in an Oct. 19 Huffington Post column. "Given the high uncertainty of the three-way race, I expect voters will continue to hold their ballots so they can become more informed about their choices."
A YouGov poll conducted between Oct. 16 and Oct. 23 showed Rounds with a clear lead, as 38 percent of respondents said they backed the Republican, while 25 percent went with Weiland and 21 percent said they supported Pressler.