Reporting from Washington — Of all the Democratic incumbents seeking reelection this year, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver is among the most vulnerable. As of Friday, though, he was assured of at least one vote — his own.
"That's one down, about 550,000 to go," he told reporters at the Polk County auditor's office, where he cast his general election ballot early.
FOR THE RECORD:
Early voting: An article in the Oct. 6 Section A on the effects of early voting on campaign strategies said that 56% of the 2.5 million Floridians who voted in the state's primary election did so before the Aug. 24 election date. According to the secretary of state's office, 1,058,836 of the 2,428,373 votes —or 44% --were cast at early-voting stations or by absentee ballot before election day.
Iowa is one of eight states where ballots already are being cast for the midterm election, a month before the constitutionally prescribed date. In the coming weeks, more than two dozen other states will begin early voting, a procedure that is growing more popular with each election.
Party officials and election experts estimate that by Nov. 2, a third to a half of voters will have cast their ballots. The parties argue over whether the trend benefits Democrats or Republicans, but no one disputes that campaign playbooks are being rewritten in response.
"It's fundamentally changed how campaigns are done," said Doug Heye, communications director for the Republican National Committee.
Most states have long permitted absentee balloting for voters who will be away. States began expanding early voting programs for others after problems associated with the 2000 presidential election in Florida.
From 2004 to 2008, the number of people casting ballots before election day rose from 20% to 30% of all voters, according to Daniel Tokaji, a professor at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law, an expert on voting trends.
A recent Los Angeles Times/USC poll found that in California, 48% of voters said they would probably vote early. An additional 10% said there was at least a 50-50 chance they would do so.
The developments affect every facet of political campaigns, including grass-roots efforts, ad campaigns and responding to negative revelations.
In California's race for governor, Republican candidate Meg Whitman's campaign was rocked by the allegation that she once employed an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper. In past elections, she would have had weeks to respond and counter the allegation. But California voters began casting ballots Monday.
Tokaji said one argument against early voting had been that such developments could affect voters' decisions. But he dismissed that likelihood.
"I think most of the people who are voting early — the vast majority, in fact — have already made up their minds," he said. "In those instances where there is late-breaking news, it doesn't necessarily make for better decision making."
The early start to voting also means that campaigns have to spend money and resources sooner on field efforts and advertising. Negative ads, in particular, already have begun, where in the past, campaigns tried to time them for the closing weeks or days to have maximum effect.
In some party primaries this year, campaigns say early voting proved decisive. Florida Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum saw a late surge in support as a series of unflattering stories emerged about his opponent in the Republican gubernatorial race, Rick Scott. His campaign says he won the vote on election day.
But Scott clinched the nomination, bolstered by support he had locked in beforehand through an expensive direct-mail effort aimed at driving up the early vote. Fifty-six percent of the 2.5 million Floridians who voted in the state's political primaries had done so before Aug. 24.
Democrats have taken notice. The national Democratic Governors Assn. has committed more than $4 million to the Florida Democratic Party, in part to boost its early voting program.
"Early voting is something that I think will be one of those hidden advantages for Democrats this year," said association Executive Director Nathan Daschle. "It's going to benefit the party who is most organized."
A major component of the GOP's strategy is its "72-hour program," in which volunteers and congressional aides are dispatched to key districts and states for a three-day outreach program aimed at getting targeted voters to the polls on election day. In many areas where early voting is occurring, that effort has already begun.
What constitutes early voting varies widely by state. Some allow voters to cast early ballots at a registrar of voters office, or at satellite centers like a post office or shopping mall. Others have relied on absentee voting, where voters mail in their ballots.
Maine adopted a pilot program over several elections, but officials ultimately concluded that a constitutional amendment was needed before adopting it permanently. The voter response was enthusiastic: 98% of participants surveyed said they wanted the option in the future, with convenience as the main reason.
Candidates "need to adjust their thinking about their message, and how soon they're getting their message out because it is starting already," said Julie Flynn, Maine's deputy secretary of state.