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In early voting, campaigns target unlikely voters

9:02 AM, Sep 28, 2012   |    comments
Voting booths are set up for early voting at the Black Hawk County Courthouse on September 27, 2012 in Waterloo, Iowa. Early voting starts today in Iowa where in the 2008 election 36 percent of voters cast an early ballot.(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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by Gregory Korte, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- Early voters tend to be educated, informed and motivated voters -- the kind of people who would probably find a way to vote no matter what.

So the major presidential campaigns will spend the next month looking for exactly the opposite -- unlikely voters -- to get to the polls before Election Day. "People who may have voted in a presidential election, but not an off-year election," said Aaron Pickrell, a senior adviser for the Obama campaign in Ohio.

"What we want to do is use early and absentee to get your lower propensity voters to vote," said Rich Beeson, the national political director for Republican Mitt Romney's campaign. "Get the number of contacts to them up, and make it as easy as possible for them to vote."

That kind of bird-in-hand approach, coupled with aggressive data-mining and voter targeting, is changing the arc of campaigns, especially in early-voting swing states. Iowa opens in-person early voting Thursday, followed by Ohio next week. The battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia and Wisconsin are also among the 32 states allowing some form of in-person early voting.

In 2008, about 25.7% of voters nationwide cast a ballot before Election Day, according to data compiled by George Mason University's United States Elections Project. In the 12 key swing states where the campaigns are devoting most of their resources this year, it was 32.5%.

The early-voting calendar can even dictate candidates' schedules. Both President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney were in Ohio on Wednesday, with Obama focusing on college campuses where his campaign is stepping up early-voting efforts.

As Election Day becomes election month, campaigns have to invest more money and effort in getting out the vote -- but with a greater potential payoff.

"It's a much more efficient use of money when you get someone to vote early or absentee," Beeson said. "You can take them out of the turnout universe and not have to contact them again through Election Day."

"It gives you more bites at the apple," Pickrell said.

In fact, campaigns say their early voting strategies have more to do with identifying and engaging borderline voters than logistics like getting them to the polls. The Obama campaign's "neighborhood team" model stresses data-driven phone banks and door-to-door canvassing to help identify and persuade potential early voters.

But the Romney campaign says Obama's early vote operation is suffering from a dropoff in enthusiasm from 2008, and so is front-loading their early votes with votes they would have gotten anyway. "They have a lack of intensity," Beeson said. "They may be voting some of their higher-engaged voters early. They have a different priority than we do."

Studies of early voting thus far show, at best, a modest increase in overall turnout. And it's unclear whether either party has a natural advantage. In Iowa, five times as many absentee ballot requests are coming from Democrats as Republicans. In North Carolina, Republican requests are leading 51% to 28%.

But it's returned ballots that count, and a party can only claim an early-voting advantage if it gets supporters to the polls who wouldn't have shown up Nov. 6.

"People only cast their ballot once they're ready to do so," said Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason who tracks early voting. "The earliest of early voters are hard-core partisan supporters. ... They're going to cast their ballot the same way now as they would on Election Day."

Still, there are enough swing voters casting their vote early that campaign advertising -- especially negative advertising -- is appearing even earlier.

"The media needs to get info out sooner, and so do the campaigns. They can't hold what's traditionally known as the October surprise -- that particularly damning piece of information on their opponent -- they can't hold that until days before the election any more," McDonald said.

Beeson said he doesn't concede anything to the Obama campaign when it comes to early voting. "They're the reigning champs, so you have to give them that. They did a tremendous job in 2008. But we pioneered this stuff in 2004. They took it to the next level in 2008, and we'll learn from that in 2012."

USA TODAY

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