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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Early Voting Changes Tempo, Tone of Campaigns

If the campaigns of 2010 seem more intense than usual, one reason may be early voting. So note Carolyn Crist and Melissa Weinman in their article “Early Voting Is a Game-Changer: Campaigns react to 45-day stretch of casting ballots” in the Gainesville (GA) Times.
The authors cite a huge uptick in early voting in the Peach State:

In the 2008 general election, more than half of voters came in early, about 2 million of the 3.9 million total in Georgia. That showed a large jump from the 2004 election, in which early voting was only allowed for specific reasons. In that election 387,596 voted early of the 3.2 million voters, or about 9 percent.
…Heath Garrett, a Republican political strategist, said early voting has caused a “monumental shift” in the way political campaigns operate. Because the early voting period is so new, there is still a lot to learn.
“Most of the campaigns in Georgia are learning from the 2008 election. 2008 showed that most campaigns, other than the presidential campaigns were not prepared for the impact of early voting,” Garrett said.

As you might imagine, early voting has created a bit of an earthquake in political advertising, sort of a ‘twin peaks’ phenomenon, as Crist and Weinman explain:

Now that voters head to the polls early, campaigns have to catch them early as well. Garrett said campaigning has become more expensive as a result.
“It’s almost like you have to have the same resources you had in the last week to 10 days in a campaign before early voting, but then you have to add onto that the resources to allow you to advertise and engage the electorate in the weeks leading up to early voting,” Garrett said.
“With your paid advertising, you have to peak just before and right around the beginning of early voting, which is 45 days prior to Election Day. And then you have to sustain some kind of paid advertising now for that entire period of time. Then you have to repeak as you get into the week of what we call advance voting heading right into Election Day.”
Garrett said there is a big difference between what the gubernatorial and Senate campaigns can do and how the down-ticket races cope with the costs of early voting.
In a state with a population of 10 million, the cost of advertising and direct mail in Georgia is expensive…”Those campaigns don’t have the budget to do television or radio so they really have to rely on good, old-fashioned grass-roots campaigning,” Garrett said.

The authors add:

[Republican] Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s campaign officials said volunteer efforts have been prolonged.
“With an increasing number of early voters casting their ballots before TV commercials air and mail arrives, it’s more important than ever to establish a grass-roots organization that can build support for a candidate prior to early voting,” said Ryan Cassin, Cagle’s campaign manager. “This is why the lieutenant governor has worked so hard to cultivate an aggressive grassroots network in all 159 counties, and grow his team of supporters on social media like Facebook.”…Cagle still plans traditional forms of outreach, such as TV and mail ads, during the latter stages of the campaign. But the grass-roots effort has played a large part of the early campaign, Cassin said.

There are concerns about how early voting affects the overall quality of campaigns, explain Weinman and Crist:

Douglas Young, a political science professor at Gainesville State College, isn’t so sure the 45-day time frame is a good idea…”On one hand, I respect the desire to try to help more people vote because things can always come up unexpectedly on Election Day with the weather or car trouble,” he said. “However, I’m troubled by the fact that Georgians can vote so early. If you look at American history, so often in the last six weeks of campaigning is when important debates occur. So many other events can take place after people have voted.”
This includes news media uncovering new information, candidates disclosing each other’s potential weaknesses and the release of financial information, he said…”A good survey might poll those who voted several weeks early before more information came out and how many regret having voted early,” Young said. “I think a week or two weeks is gracious time to get your act together and get to the polls. Six weeks out is long before relevant information may come out.”

Go negative early seems to be the new political mantra:

Garrett said the effect of such prolonged negative campaigning has yet to be seen…”If you’re in a competitive race, the negative attacks all start earlier,” Garrett said. “I think we’re going to learn a lot this year from that kind of impact.”

Early voting may also amplify the utility of ‘new media,’ especially at local levels, report Crist and Weinman:

Grassroots and social media campaigning is certainly helping Chad Cobb, a Democrat running for Georgia House District 26…”I’m not doing signs because I haven’t had financing as far as getting those, but I do hope to do a radio ad and newspaper ad the week before Election Day,” he said. “Facebook is a gold mine for campaigning. That’s what I started in June knowing I didn’t have a Democrat opponent for the primary. After that, I knew I could reach out and talk to the people in my district. It’s more of a grass-roots campaign.”
For Carol Porter, the Democrat lieutenant governor candidate, social media also is the answer…”Early voting has changed the way we think about campaigns, and the new dynamic is Facebook, Twitter and all the other ways you reach people where they are,” said Liz Flowers, Porter’s press secretary. “Websites are a more prominent campaign tool than in the past, and Carol gets up every morning to post something on Facebook and Twitter. It’s not something the staff does, which happens in other campaigns. She puts down what is on her mind so people can directly connect to her.”

Early voting has apparently added intensity to the traditional ‘boiler room’ GOTV effort, as well, report the authors:

The Democratic Party of Georgia has set up 15 field offices across the state – its most ambitious field program ever – and filled them with people to call registered voters and encourage them to vote early, party spokesman Eric Gray said.
So far, the offices have made more than 100,000 calls statewide. That effort frees up candidates, who are under more strain with the early-voting timetable than the traditional model of nearly everyone voting on the first Tuesday in November.
“This is still pretty new territory we’re trying to navigate,” Gray said. “The candidates have to be everywhere for six weeks before the election instead of one week.”

As a resident of Georgia, I’ve been somewhat awed by the ubiquity of former Democratic Governor Roy Barnes’ internet banner attack ads, lambasting his Republican opponent for Governor, Nathan Deal as “too corrupt, even for congress.” I do a good bit of political net-surfing, and I’ve seen his ads, which I assume are keyed to net-surfer’s zip codes, flickering on websites everywhere during the last month or so. Barnes is surging nicely in a major “red south’ race that pundits are rating in toss-up territory.
Deal has responded with a YouTube video, “…If you go early and get the voting out of the way, you can just fast-forward through all of those bad commercials that my opponent is running,” Deal says.
Game-changer that it is in individual campaigns, early voting hasn’t yet translated into a significant expansion in overall voter turnout. In their article, “Reducing the Costs of Participation: Are States Getting a Return on Early Voting?” in the Political Research Quarterly, Joseph D. Giammo and Brian J. Brox cite “the puzzle” of why governments have implemented early voting when it hasn’t had much enduring effect on turnout, and note further, in the article abstract:

…Early voting seems to produce a short-lived increase in turnout that disappears by the second presidential election in which it is available. They also address whether the additional costs to government are worth the negligible increase in participation. They conclude that these reforms merely offer additional convenience for those already likely to vote.

Makes sense. Folks well-organized enough to vote early would likely vote even if the early opportunity isn’t available. We might see some improvement as boomer generations mature. But I don’t think early voting is the “killer app” for overall turnout that internet/cell phone voting or automatic registration might be.
For the campaigns of 2010, however, expect those candidates who have planned well for early voting to have an edge.

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