Voters cast ballots in Des Moines on election day in 2008. (Charlie Neibergall, Associated…)
DES MOINES — A decade ago, strategist Karl Rove launched the Republican Party's 72-hour plan: a massive door-knocking and phone effort in the final three days before the election that helped generate victories in 2002 and 2004. Early voting this year has rendered Rove's idea obsolete.
Ballots have landed on kitchen tables in North Carolina, where two-thirds or more of the vote will probably be cast early. In-person voting starts Thursday in Iowa, a swing state where election season has assumed biblical proportions: 40 days and nights leading up to Nov. 6. Before this month is out, 30 states will be voting. And when election day dawns, more than 45 million Americans are expected to have already voted, a record number.
This galloping trend is altering the calculus of the presidential campaigns, particularly in battleground states.
"The fact is that voting has changed dramatically," said Rick Wiley, political director of the Republican National Committee. Early voting "moves everything up."
The campaign ad wars, which used to peak toward the end of October, are expected to reach maximum intensity by the first of the month. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia allow voters, without any excuse or justification, to cast ballots in person prior to election day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Early voting is often promoted as a convenience for harried citizens. But it may be a bigger boon for candidates, enabling them to deploy money and personnel more efficiently as they work to corral votes as soon as possible.
"By encouraging our supporters to vote early, we can focus our resources more efficiently on election day to make sure those less likely to vote get out to the polls," said Adam Fetcher, an Obama campaign spokesman. "We've made early investments in battleground states, where we've been registering folks and keeping an open conversation going with undecided voters for months."
Using advanced technology, campaigns track, or "chase," voters who request absentee ballots, often on a daily basis, until they are turned in. Then the campaign moves on. After someone votes early, "You stop sending them mail. You stop calling them. You don't need to knock on their door anymore," said a senior Obama campaign aide, who requested anonymity because he was not an authorized spokesman.
In Iowa, trekking to the polling place is an election day ritual for habitual Republican voters, said a Mitt Romney strategist. So the campaign is putting its emphasis instead on banking early votes from Iowans who favor the Republican nominee but whose voting histories indicate that they can be unreliable.
Initial indications from Iowa favor Democrats, who made an early push for absentee ballots and have requested nearly six times as many as GOP voters. The Romney camp says Republicans are catching up and that mailings went out recently to their side.
Early voting can insulate a candidate against a damaging gaffe or negative news story in the closing weeks before election day. The disclosure of a decades-old drunk-driving charge against George W. Bush five days before the 2000 election may have cost him as many as five states, Rove, his chief strategist, later wrote. Late damage could be reduced this year, when more than 35% of the vote is expected to be cast early, compared with less than 15% in 2000.
But the dynamic works both ways. Early voting could mute the boost from a positive event — like a strong showing in this year's final televised debate on Oct. 22, only 15 days before the election.
Paul Gronke, who directs the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore., says most early voters don't cast their ballots until the final week or two before an election. "The real danger period for candidates is three or four days before the election," he said.
In most of the 2012 battleground states, half or more of the vote will come in early, according to campaign officials. "North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, Iowa. There's a path to 270 [electoral votes] right there," said Rich Beeson, political director for the Romney campaign, listing states where early voting is expected to top the national average. But early voting rules vary widely from state to state, as do strategies and tactics for pursuing voters.
Students, for example, are a major Obama target. But snail mail is increasingly useless in reaching them — many no longer have mailboxes in their dorms — complicating efforts to harvest absentee ballots. So in Iowa and other states, Democrats are emphasizing satellite voting locations on or near college campuses.
First Lady Michelle Obama recently delivered an early-vote message, tinged with humor, to students at a pair of colleges in North Carolina, where early voting sites on some campuses open Oct. 18.