Farooq A. Kperogi
Data from early voting—the process by which voters can cast their vote days before the designated Election Day either in person or by mail—show that Obama is leading McCain by striking margins.
Most U.S. states, except Maryland, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington, allow some form of early voting.
Early voting accounted for 22 percent of the votes cast in the 2004 presidential election, and 16 percent of the votes cast in the 2000 presidential election. Given the unprecedented enthusiasm in early voting this year, the Associated Press predicted that it could account for a third of the votes.
So far, according to one estimate, more than 16 million people have cast their ballots in the presidential election. It is estimated that the figure will be considerably higher when early voting ends this week.
(There are currently about 55 million registered Republicans, about 72 million registered Democrats and about 42 million who are registered as independents or without any party affiliation).
Winning the election before the election?
According to the latest Gallup poll of Americans who have already voted between October 17 and October 27, 53 percent said they voted for Obama against 43 who said they voted for McCain.
Similarly, a survey of people who have not yet voted but plan on voting before the Election Day shows a 54 percent preference for Obama against McCain’s 40 percent. Of those who said they would wait till November 4 to cast their vote, 50 percent said they would vote for Obama and 44 percent said they would vote for McCain.
The same poll found that across all registered voters over this time period, Obama leads McCain by a 51 percent to 43 percent margin.
Another national poll, the ABC/Washington Post tracking poll, has similar, if somewhat higher, figures for Obama. The poll found that among individuals who have already cast their ballots, 60 percent voted for Obama and 39 percent voted for McCain.
The poll’s survey of people who plan to vote before Election Day but have not yet done so shows that 58 percent preferred Obama. Only 39 percent said they would vote for McCain. Those who plan to vote on Election Day also prefer Obama, but by a narrower 51 to 45 percent.
State of the states in early voting
Experts in American elections warn that national polls can conceal many subtleties that can potentially render them misleading.
Instead, they advise that attention be paid to states, particularly battleground or swing states (states in which no candidate has an overwhelming support, meaning that any of the major candidates has a reasonable chance of winning the state) and bellwether states (states that have produced the same outcome as the national results in every presidential election since record keeping started in 1904).
In the 2008 presidential election, the states that are often considered to be key battleground states are: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado.
And, historically, the bellwether states are Missouri (which failed to vote for the victorious candidate only once in 1956), Nevada (which missed voting for the winning candidate only in 1976), Tennessee (which missed only in 1960), Ohio (which missed twice in 1944 and 1960), New Mexico (which missed twice in 1976 and 2000), Kentucky (which missed twice in 1952 and1960), and Delaware (which missed twice in 2000 and2004).
That’s why when candidates campaign in these bellwether states they almost always pander to voters by proclaiming, “How you go, goes the nation."
Battle in the battleground states
Most polls give Obama a competitive edge in all the battleground states. A new Suffolk University poll of Florida, for instance, shows that among early voters, Obama is ahead of McCain by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin.
Statistics from the poll show that enough early votes have already been cast to equal more than a quarter of the total votes that were cast in 2004.
And according to the most recent Times/Bloomberg poll, Obama leads McCain in Florida 50 percent to 43 percent. Interestingly, until relatively recently, Florida was considered to be Republican-leaning state. The state was central to President Bush's election in 2000.
According to The Associated Press, early voting in all of the battleground states appeared to be in Obama's favor. “In North Carolina, for example,” the news agency said, “the turnout for early voting has been nearly a third higher than in 2004 and the number of Democrats has been close to double that of Republicans.”
It added that “Democratic voters in Florida have numbered about 100,000 more than Republicans, and Democrats hold an edge so far in Colorado.”
In Ohio, according to the latest poll released by SurveyUSA, 57 percent of people who have actually voted in the early election voted for Obama against 39 percent who voted for McCain. And among those who have not yet voted but will vote before Election Day, 49 percent said they would vote for Obama and 45 percent they would vote for McCain.
The same poll showed that overall voter preference for Obama is 50 percent. For McCain, it is 45 percent.
In an identical WHIO-TV/SurveyUSA poll released two weeks earlier, Obama was down 1 point and McCain was stable. Now McCain is slipping and Obama rising.
In the state of Colorado, early voting is currently at over 75 percent of 2004 levels with less than one week to Election Day. In this state, Obama leads McCain in early voting by a narrow margin of 38.6 percent to 37.9 percent.
In Nevada, Obama leads McCain 54.4 percent to 29.1 percent among early voters. And in Illinois, Obama’s home state, 58 percent of early voters cast their votes for Obama and only 25 percent for McCain.
SurveyUSA’s comprehensive poll of early voting in other battleground states showed Obama with a commanding lead over McCain.
Unprecedented turnout from young and black people
Because of the unexampled enthusiasm of young people who traditionally didn’t participate in the political process and African Americans who are ecstatic at the prospect of electing America’s first African American president, the turnout in early voting this year has exceeded any previous record.
In the state of Georgia, which as never voted Democratic in decades, early voting is already at 180 percent of its 2004 total. In Louisiana, it is 169 percent of its 2004 total, while it is 129 percent in North Carolina.
In Florida, early voters already make up 27 percent of total 2004 numbers (in 2004, early voters constituted 36 percent of total votes, according to official estimates).
CNN quotes North Carolina’s Board of lection as saying that more than 1.2 million voters have already voted before Election Day, representing 20 percent of registered voters.
The Florida Department of State also disclosed that as of last Monday, more than 1 million people, out of the state’s estimated 10 million registered voters, have voted at early voting centers throughout the state.
The turnout in the state of Indiana is a little less dramatic than the other states, but it’s still significant nonetheless. Of the 4.5 million registered voters in Indiana, 286,523 voters, that is, about 6 percent, voted early. This number already trumps the record in 2004.
"These numbers are really astounding — they defy all the patterns of early voting we've seen in this modern era," Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University and consultant to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission that compiles data on early voting, told Politico.com.
He pointed out that research from previous elections showed that "the early electorate tends to be more Republican in their character than the Election Day electorate." Now the tide has turned.
In the last two elections, President Bush won in the early votes in every state, except Iowa. So far, Obama has won every single state in early voting. Will this propel him to a landslide win?
Worries in McCain campaign
Added to emerging statistics on Obama’s decisive lead in the early polls are new disturbing polls showing that instead of closing the gap, McCain is sliding almost irretrievably in the national polls and in battleground states.
The latest national poll by the Pew Research Center found Obama with a 16-point lead among registered voters. The survey said 52 percent of voters preferred Obama and that only 36 percent of voters prefer McCain, with independent voters supporting Obama by a 48-31 margin.
Perhaps the most worrisome news for McCain is that even in his own home state of Arizona, Obama is closing the gap. The Cronkite/Eight Poll on the presidential race among registered voters in Arizona showed McCain preferred by 46 percent of voters, and Obama by 44 percent of voters.
A survey by the same pollster a month ago showed McCain ahead of Obama with a 7-point advantage.
Now, even prominnt McCain supporters speak openly about the possibility that this election might be over for their candidate. Two prominent Republicans who were once on McCain's short list for vice president have echoed this escalating sense of foreboding just this week.
In a fundraising e-mail this week, Mitt Romney, former Republican governor of Massachusetts and dogged McCain campaigner, referred to "the very real possibility of an Obama presidency."
And the current Republican governor of Minnesota Tim Pawlenty gave a sullen assessment of McCain's chances in his state, saying Barack Obama "has a pretty good advantage in Minnesota right now."
Early voting as safeguard against “October Surprise”
According to political analysts, one of the key effects of massive early voting, such as we have witnessed this year, is that it can blunt the impact of a phenomenon called the “October Surprise” in American politics.
An “October Surprise” is any dramatic last-minute event that swings the election to the disadvantage of a leading candidate. In the final weeks of the 2004 election, for instance, all the polls predicted that John Kerry would defeat Bush.
Then Osama bin Laden allegedly issued a videotape that criticized Bush and warned U.S. voters that "your security is in your own hands" in the election.
"It changed the entire dynamic of the last five days," Kerry told newsmen early this month. "We saw it in the polling. There was no other intervening event. We saw the polls freeze and then we saw them drop a point, because all the security moms, it agitated people over 9/11."
The term “October Surprise was coined during the 1980 presidential election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. A year before Election Day, radical Iranian students had invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and held the Americans they found there hostage.
President Carter worked throughout the campaign to secure the release of the American hostages during which eight American servicemen were killed. According to the Associated Press, “Critics say the Reagan team was so concerned that Carter would gain a boost by winning their release just before the election, that his campaign manager and others negotiated privately with the Iranians to ensure that did not happen.”
This cost Carter the 1980 election.
The Obama campaign is well aware of an “October Surprise” in the form of an engineered terrorist attack. That’s why the campaign has worked so hard to encourage early voting so that in the event of a dramatic, game-changing event that could potentially compel voters to shift their loyalty to McCain, the early votes would be a safeguard.
So what might be the October--perhaps November--Surprise this year? According to Tom Brokaw, the moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press: "There are some people in the Obama campaign who believe that there's a concerted effort under way to get Osama bin Laden before Election Day and bring him out of captivity, dead or alive, in some fashion."
However, with the unprecedented turnout in early voting, which favors Obama by spectacular margins, this potential “Surprise” may be not be as effective as previous ones.
Worries over voter fraud
Perhaps the clearest evidence of early voting's new importance is the amount of litigation and legal posturing it has generated and continue to generate, according to Politico.com.
Sometime last week, for instance, scores voters in Virginia told newsmen that electronic voting machines changed their votes from Democrats to Republicans. Other voters said their electronic vote for "Barack Obama" kept flipping to "John McCain."
"I pushed buttons and they all came up Republican," Shelba Ketchum, a 69-year-old nurse said. "I hit Obama and it switched to McCain. I am really concerned about that. If McCain wins, there was something wrong with the machines.”
The clerk of the electronic voting machines, Jeff Waybright, a Republican, said the problem was not widespread, adding that 400 other people voted without reporting any problems. "Voting machines are very reliable. I hate the fact that stories like this are printed. It makes everybody get scared.
"That is not good for anybody. Where the fault is, I don't know and the voter doesn't know. There needs to be good communication between the voters and the poll workers."
However, it’s not only Democrats that are complaining of voting fraud. Republicans, too, have accused Democrats of the same offense. In Indiana, Republicans challenged the opening of three voting centers in an Obama-leaning county, citing fears of voting fraud. The judge ruled to keep the centers open.
Republicans have also alleged that the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an Obama-leaning organization has been involved in fraudulent voter registration.
It would be interesting to see how the election of world's beacon of democracy will be marred allegations of voter fraud.