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For Romney and Obama, early voting key campaign focus


Both President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney's campaign are working to bank as many early votes as they possibly can, using some states' options to cast a ballot before Nov. 6 to build an advantage headed into Election Day.

Elections in the past were often focused on sophisticated get-out-the-vote efforts meant to drive turnout at polling places on the day of the election. But those efforts have now expanded to include early voting – which can include both absentee ballots but also in-person voting at polling places in the weeks leading up to the election.

Shawn Rocco / AP

Voters cast their ballots at the Herbert Young Community Center polling place in Cary, N.C., on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, the first day of early voting in North Carolina.

The Obama campaign took particular advantage of early voting in 2008, and is hoping to duplicate that success in 2012. But Republicans are onto the secret, and the Romney campaign has led the GOP in building a more robust organization for early voting.

“We’re seeing early voting on par with – if not exceeding – 2008, so it looks like we’ve got a very engaged electorate,” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor at Virginia’s George Mason University who has tracked early voting patterns. “In critical battleground states, early voting allows the campaigns the ability to stretch their voter mobilization efforts over the entire early voting period, and there’s strong evidence that they’re doing just that.”

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Both campaigns have made a point of bragging of their prowess at securing early votes to project superior organization and a political advantage heading into Election Day itself. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia offer some range of early, in-person voting.

The Court refused to issue an order that would have cut back on early voting in that state in the days leading up to the election. NewsNation's Tamron Hall reports.

In some states, like Iowa, said McDonald, the available data points toward an advantage for the Obama campaign. But he also said it’s much more difficult to discern a major advantage for Romney or the president in a number other swing states, including key battlegrounds like Ohio and Florida.

The campaigns have each organized their efforts partly around driving early voter turnout. Many of Team Obama’s recent events have been staged to allow attendees to cast their ballots immediately afterward.

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Take, for instance, Obama’s plea on Wednesday during a rally at Ohio University: “The good news is you can vote in Ohio right now.  Find out where at Vote.BarackObama.com. If you live nearby, you can vote just a few blocks away, at 15 South Court Street.”

And Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan was sure to remind Cleveland-area voters of the practice during a rally earlier in the same day. “Please don’t forget early voting – Ohioans have a unique responsibility – you are the battleground of battleground states,” the Wisconsin congressman said. “You have a unique responsibility and opportunity and an obligation to make sure that we secure our future.”

At the same time, both the Romney and Obama campaigns have seem to taken a different approach toward early voting, particularly when it comes to which type of voter they’re most intently targeting. The Obama campaign said, for instance, that it is focusing on unlikely voters.

In 35 states and Washington, D.C., voters can cast their ballots before Election Day. NBC's Craig Melvin speaks with journalists Keith Boykin, Nia-Malika Henderson and Robert Costa about early voting and it's impact on this year's presidential election.

“By encouraging unlikely voters to vote early, we can focus our resources more efficiently on Election Day and make sure those less likely to vote get out to the polls,” Jeremy Bird, the Obama campaign’s national field director, wrote in a memo released to the press last week.

In a dueling memo released this past Monday, the Romney campaign’s political director, Rich Beeson, argued that few early votes had actually been cast, making it difficult to discern whether either campaign had an advantage. Beeson also contended that the Obama early vote effort had hardly been focused on unlikely voters.

“Many of the Democratic ballots are from high propensity voters who would almost certainly be voting on Election Day – meaning that President Obama is cannibalizing his turnout on November 6th,”he wrote. “Governor Romney’s early voting effort has been, and will continue to be, focused on low propensity voters, which means his Election Day turnout will not be negatively impacted by the early vote program.”

Another complicated byproduct of the growth in early voting is that it has now become somewhat more difficult for pollsters to gauge which way political momentum is headed in some swing states.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Olyvia Metoyer waits at a campaign rally at Memorial Hall on Oct.19, 2012 in Racine, Wis. Today the first lady has stops in Racine and Wausau and former President Bill Clinton is scheduled to attend an event in Green Bay as Democrats make a push for early voting in the battleground state.

Early voters are, by definition, part of the subset of likely voters many pollsters use in trying to gauge public opinion in the days leading up through the election. For instance, over a third of respondents in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll of Iowa voters published Thursday said they had already cast their ballots. Obama led among those voters, 67 percent to 32 percent.

The effect was pronounced, too, in Ohio, where Obama held an overall advantage over Romney of 51 to 45 percent, according to the NBC/WSJ/Marist poll of the Buckeye State released last week.

But when early voters were removed from the sample, Obama’s lead shrunk to 48 percent to 46 percent.