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How Obama 'lost' key state on election day but won anyway

December 06, 2012|By Paul West
  • President Barack Obama shakes hands with a poll worker as he cast his early vote at a Chicago-area polling station. Obama is the first sitting president to vote early in person in a presidential election.
President Barack Obama shakes hands with a poll worker as he cast his early… (Brian Cassella / European…)

WASHINGTON -- Final results from a battleground state this week are the latest evidence, if any more were needed, of the important role that early voting played in President Obama’s re-election victory.

The official numbers from Iowa show that Republican nominee Mitt Romney “won” election day, by taking a majority of the votes cast there that day.

But Obama carried the state. 

That’s because, in the weeks leading up to the election, Obama had banked a big cushion of early votes,  a total of 137,000 more than Romney got.

Overall, more than two in five Iowa voters (43%) cast early ballots. The figure was up sharply from the 31% who cast early votes in the state in 2008.

Michael McDonald, a George Mason University political scientist who studies early voting, said in an interview that when all the 2012 votes are finally counted, the share of votes cast early will rise to a record 35%, from about 30% in 2008.

The larger jump in Iowa is due primarily to the ferocity of early-vote competition between the campaigns there.

But there’s another potential factor:  Iowans have been spared a recent trend in American politics: a concerted effort by Republicans at the state level to restrict voting.

Unlike some other key states, government is divided in Iowa; Democrats control the state Senate; the GOP holds the House and the governorship. That split makes it impossible for Republicans to enact legislation that might undermine early voting, assuming they wanted to.

In Florida, they did. The Republican Legislature and governor succeeded in shrinking the early-vote window, and the number of early in-person votes fell this year from 2008 (even though the total number of votes cast increased). In Ohio, courts blocked a similar GOP effort to limit early voting.

Still, the magnitude of Obama’s early-vote margin in Iowa was something of a surprise.  In recent years, it’s become a tradition for Iowa Republicans to lose the early vote and then win the election by outpolling the Democrats on election day.  It happened in the 2004 presidential and 2010 gubernatorial elections. 

This time, Romney and state Republicans waged a more aggressive early-voting effort than John McCain had four years earlier, and the numbers of returned ballots in the weeks before the election appeared to reflect the success of their efforts.   An 18-percentage-point Democratic advantage in 2008 had been cut almost in half (42% of returned ballots were from registered Democrats; 32% from Republicans).

At the same time, figures showed that more than 40,000 registered Democrats had not returned their mail ballots, compared with about 21,000 Republicans.  Those figures, as professor McDonald wrote on the Huffington Post website three days before the election, “will give the Obama campaign heartburn” in Iowa.

This time, the Republican “win” in ballots cast on election day (51% for Romney to 46% for Obama) wasn’t enough.  Obama took the early vote by 20 points (59% to 39%). And thanks to the size of the early vote, a state that many thought could go either way went for the president by a comfortable margin of nearly 6 percentage points.

Follow Politics Now on Twitter and Facebook.

paul.west@latimes.com

Twitter: @paulwestdc

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