Swing State Update: Many Polls Tightening, But Dems Are Ahead In Early Voting

Democrats appear to have the upper hand in more key states.

With less than three weeks until all of the 2012’s presidential voting will end—the country is drowning in polls showing the race tightening and swing states breaking for Obama or Romney. But beyond this blizzard of numbers, there is another indice to heed: so far, Democrats are outperforming Republicans in early voting. And Obama is ahead in the Electoral College math.

You wouldn’t necessarily know this from the latest polls, such as this summary from Real Clear Politics, which tracks 11 swing states and found Romney and Obama were neck and neck on Monday—based on its averaging of national polls—and even had Romney ahead for a while based on the latest surveys.

But this statistical blizzard is not taking into account two very important factors, according to George Mason University’s Michael McDonald, one of the nation’s leading voter turnout experts. First, polling organizations do not count newly registered voters as ‘likely voters,’ which means even though Romney is said to be ahead in Florida by one-to-two points in polls, they are not counting hundreds of thousands of new voter registrations by Democratic groups—which could account for a larger percent of votes cast. And second, Democrats are voting early in large numbers where that is an option, suggesting there's not a drop off compared to 2008.   

“At this point there is no evidence that the Democrats are less engaged than 2008,” McDonald said on Wednesday. “If the election was held today, Obama wins right now… He’s winning in Iowa. The early voting numbers [there] show his support is building like it did in 2008. If he wins in Iowa, it comes down to Wisconsin and Ohio. And we might expect Wisconsin to be somewhat like Iowa.”

Swing State Shifts  

Real Clear Politics identifies 11 swing states, some of which are no longer seen as being on the fence between Obama and Romney: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The New York Times’ Nate Silver is a polling expert who writes a blog that assesses polls and pollsters. He says that Pennsylvania, with one of 2012’s biggest voter ID fights, is lining up behind Obama. In contrast, North Carolina, despite hosting the Democratic National Convention, is tilting toward Romney. Nevada, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and even Ohio are seen as falling into the Obama column. The latest polls put Florida in Romney’s hands, leaving only three states that he sees as genuine toss-ups: Virginia, Colorado and Iowa. (However, while Silver’s expertise is polls, McDonald’s is voter turnout, and he sees Obama pulling ahead in Iowa).

Silver says the polling at this stage in the race is accurate but still educated guesswork, because many analysts are trying to balance national and state surveys that are reaching contradictory conclusions—for Obama or Romney. As Silver noted on Monday, “Anyone in my business who is not a bit terrified by this set of facts is either lying to himself—or he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

Where that leaves voters is as dicey as it is obvious: it comes down to voter turnout. The political map was upended after the first presidential debate when Obama’s weary visuals left a deeper impression than his words to those who watched on TV. Tonight’s debate will be very important with motivating the bases from both parties.

Another factor that is not reflected in the polls is the election law landscape in key swing states. There are factors in a number of swing states that, on balance, could be more helpful to Democrats than to the GOP—if Obama voters decide to turnout. Let’s look at some of these swing states and the voting landscape.


Is Mitt Romney really ahead in Florida? It seems that Romney did get a bump of one-to-two percentage points in the polls after the first debate—a bounce that is less than these polls' margin of error, which a skeptic would say means that the race is statistically tied.

But, as McDonald noted, these recent polls do not fully take into account how the Democratic Party and groups doing registration drives among likely Democratic voters fared this year. Last week, when Florida closed its voter registration for the presidential election, Democrats and their allies turned in at least 350,000 more registrations than the GOP. That difference could be 3 percent of the state’s electorate if those people vote, a share that would be bigger than Romney’s lead in polls after the first debate. And the Dems are doing far better in early absentee voting compared to 2008, the Miami Herald reports.

What’s really a concern for Florida voters who aren’t going to early voting sites is not small-scale GOP chicanery tinkering with Democratic voter registrations, which was noticed by an alert county election official and caused a political ruckus, but the long length of that state’s 2012 ballot. Voting will take longer in polling places this year, causing lines that always prompt some people to leave without voting. And it’s possible that not every ballot will be completely filled out. That could get messy if vote-counting legal challenges arise.


Obama is seen as maintaining a slim lead in Ohio, even as the state’s Republicans continue to distinguish themselves in yet another presidential year with thuggish voter suppression tactics. There is small-scale stuff such as putting up billboards in Cleveland threatening African-American voters with supposedly illegal voting. Far more serious and potentially impactful is GOP Secretary of State John Husted’s ongoing efforts to cancel early voting across the state on the last weekend before Election Day.

In two recent federal court rulings, Husted was ordered to let Ohio’s 88 counties decide if they want to offer voting on the final weekend before November 6—when 100,000 Ohioans voted in 2008 including thousands of urban church-goers, a big Democratic voting block. Husted has appealed the latest ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Tuesday decided not to hear the case.

The Supreme Court's action is a big victory for Democrats. In 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 118,775 votes in Ohio, which shows the importance of this issue and why the state is remaining in the Obama column. (On Tuesday afternoon, Husted issued a directive telling the state's 88 county election boards what hours to be open for voting on November 3, 4 and 5.)


This is another toss-up state, where the Times averaging of polls finds that Obama and Romney are tied on Monday—and RealClearPolitics says that Romney is up by 0.6 percent on Tuesday. These figures come against a backdrop of another highly partisan Republican secretary of state, Scott Gessler, who also has tried to shape the electoral playing field to his party’s benefit.

Like Gessler’s counterparts in Florida, Michigan and New Mexico, the Colorado secretary has sought to scare off new voters—particularly from the state’s Latino community—by claiming that Colorado’s voter rolls are ridden with non-citizens. (This spring Florida claimed there were more than 180,000 of these; now that number turns out to be less than 200!) Gessler’s outsized claims are not true either, but they do scare off eligible voters who don’t want to deal with a policed process.

There are some signs that Colorado might break in Obama’s direction. The state’s voter registration list has a record number of voters, including nearly 230,000 who registered online. The online cohort has more younger people, who tend to vote Democratic. On the last day of registration, more than 36,000 people registered online. Presumably, that included many college students motivated after Obama visited campuses in their state.

Iowa and New Hampshire

You would think that voters in the states that made the presidential election a pillar of their economy with its first-in-the-nation caucus and primary would not be on the fence. Apparently not.

The Times has Obama with a 0.9 percent lead in Iowa, which is tied. But as George Mason University’s McDonald and this Iowa blog following the state’s Democrats notes, the Democrats are ahead of the GOP so fare this fall with turning in absentee ballots. A Washington Post blog also noted that the state’s Democrats were doing far better in 2012 than in past cycles.

There is another factor that separates Iowa from the other deadlocked swing states. Iowa has Election Day registration—as does New Hampshire and Wisconsin—so voters can make up their minds at the last minute and actually vote.

In New Hampshire, Romney has closed the gap with Obama and is now said to be trailing by a percentage point, according to Real Clear Politics on Tuesday. But what’s not taken into account in those polls is that a New Hampshire court recently overturned a new law that would have made it harder for college students to vote. Similarly, in Wisconsin, where the state’s GOP establishment is fighting in court to reinstate a tough new voter ID law that would discriminate against students, the board overseeing that state’s elections will allow people to present digital documents to poll workers—from phones, laptops and tablets—if they are registering to vote on Election Day. That too, could help college students and younger voters.

But all of these trends—the polls and election law landscape—will not mean much unless the candidates can motivate their base. And that’s why tonight’s second presidential debate, and next week’s final debate, will be critical in determining who turns out, who votes, and who occupies the White House in 2013.         





Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).