While President Obama's and Mitt Romney's campaigns are both pointing to absentee- and early-voting data as reasons to be optimistic about their candidates' chances, a review of election data in seven swing states offers further evidence that the race for the White House will remain extraordinarily close to the end.
Already, more than 12.3 million ballots have been cast throughout the country, according to the United States Election Project at George Mason University in Virginia. There's been a surge in battleground states such as Florida, Iowa and North Carolina, where both campaigns have used their formidable ground operations to encourage supporters to not wait until Election Day to vote.
"We're seeing such high volumes already," said Michael McDonald, a George Mason professor and early-voting expert. "It tells you just how critical the early vote is."
Early voting and in-person absentee balloting could be thrown for a loop this week in North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia, three states expected to be affected by Hurricane Sandy. In Virginia, for example, the election board has advised its local registrars to allow voters concerned about the hurricane to cast an absentee ballot, and the Obama campaign is encouraging voters there to do so. In North Carolina, authorities have announced two coastal counties will not open for early voting today. And in Maryland, which Obama is heavily favored to win, Gov. Martin O'Malley has canceled early voting today.
Both sides are being circumspect on how the weather will affect their efforts to get voters to the polls.
The Obama campaign "is closely monitoring the storm and will take all necessary precautions to make sure our staff and volunteers are safe," campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher said.
"Gov. Romney is concerned about the safety of those in the path of this storm, not about early voting," said Romney press secretary Andrea Saul.
A rundown of the state of early voting in some of the closest contests nationwide:
Florida. Registered Republicans have cast 61,000 more votes than Democrats, said Chris Cate, spokesman for the secretary of State.
The Obama campaign says it has significantly shrunk the GOP absentee-voter advantage from 2008. Florida Republican voters had outvoted Democrats by nearly 16 percentage points at this point in the race four years ago, compared with a 5.3-point lead as of Wednesday, according to data from the Obama campaign.
Early in-person voting began on Saturday in Florida, and both sides are stepping up their operations to try to take advantage of the moment.
At the Romney field office in Kissimmee, the campaign beefed up phone banks and recruited 30 volunteers to drive voters to the polls during the early-voting period.
"We're making sure we are at maximum capacity, so we can encourage Romney supporters to vote early," said volunteer Bobby Marshall.
North Carolina. Early voting was crucial to Obama's 2008 victory in the state, which he carried by just 14,177 votes over John McCain.
This year, the number of early voters has surged past 2008 levels, but Democrats account for a smaller share; 53% of ballots cast through Wednesday came from Democrats vs. 57% four years ago, according to data tallied by Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury. Republicans account for nearly 28% of early votes, up from 26% at the same point in the 2008 election.
Jeremy Bird, the Obama campaign's national field director, noted in a memo Sunday that early voting is up 24% among young voters and 23% among African Americans, two groups that helped propel Obama to victory four years ago.
Nevada. Democrats have a 90,000 edge over Republicans among Nevada's active registered voters and are ahead in early voting, which began Oct. 20. As of Saturday, Democrats held a nearly 39,000-vote advantage among early voters. Heavily Democratic Clark County, where the majority of the state's residents live, has seen the biggest turnout.
"None of these metrics look good for the Romney campaign," said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
Ohio. In the Buckeye State, where early voting began three weeks ago, about 526,000 early votes have been cast in counties that Obama won in 2008, compared with nearly 287,000 votes cast in Ohio counties that Republican nominee John McCain won four years ago, according to a USA TODAY review of data.
In some of the largest -- and most-Democratic-leaning -- counties, the early vote is up significantly. In Cuyahoga County, for example, 3,600 more voters have cast ballots than at the same point in the 2008 race.
Iowa. Democrats had requested 258,000 absentee ballots and returned 192,000 as of Wednesday, according to the Iowa secretary of State's office.
Republicans requested more than 181,000 and returned nearly 135,000; 146,000 voters not affiliated with a party asked for ballots.
More than 36% of the electorate voted absentee by mail or in person in 2008, said Chad Olsen, a spokesman for the secretary of State's office.
Colorado. Republicans held a 16,000 vote advantage after the first week of early voting, in which 626,000 ballots were cast. Democratic voters edged Republicans in early voting in 2008, according to data from Colorado's secretary of State.
Virginia. Absentee voting is up 18.8% in the 86 localities that McCain won in 2008, but only up 4.4% in Obama localities, according to an analysis of state voting data by Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report. Blue areas such as Richmond, Charlottesville and Arlington County have seen big drops, while two counties in southwest Virginia's Republican-tilting coal country have seen some of the biggest surges in absentee voting.
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