Given the importance of midterms, there is a strong temptation to focus on and overinterpret early voting data. That temptation, in fact, was one of the reasons so many smart people were wrong about the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, as Nate Silver pointed out later. Confidently assured by early voting data that Clinton had Florida and North Carolina in the bag, pundits naturally had trouble imagining that Trump could win not only in those battleground states, but in “bluer” states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It was a seductive thing: I took the early voting numbers to indicate that the Clinton campaign was doing better at getting out its vote than the Trump campaign, and thus in my mind I put a thumb on the scale for HRC in what I did indeed understand to be a close election.
North Carolina in particular showed one problem with overreliance on early voting data: Clinton did indeed win the early vote, but Trump won the Election Day vote by 16 points. Even if you can figure out who voted early (either by party voter registration, or by the racial/ethnic numbers available in some southern states as a byproduct of the Voting Rights Act), it’s not easy to know who hasn’t voted early. Some states don’t supply any real data on early votes other than the county in which they are cast. And anecdotal reports of huge lines for early in-person voting sometimes distracts from the quieter but equally important mail ballots.
Having said all that, there is one thing that 2018’s early voting numbers (which will not, of course, be complete until the last mail ballots drift in to election centers in California and Washington, where ballots postmarked on Election Day but received later still count) point to pretty clearly: This is going to be a high-turnout midterm election.
The U.S. Election Project’s Michael McDonald, the reigning guru of early voting, had this update today:
McDonald figures total early voting will easily hit 40 million. In the last midterm, the number was 27.5 million. Yes, there’s been a steady increase in recent years in the percentage of the vote cast early, but that’s still quite a jump. And it suggests total turnout this year will be high by historical standards, though how high remains in question. Thirty-seven percent of eligible voters participated in the 2014 election (and 60 percent voted in 2016, fairly typical for a recent presidential year). McDonald estimates the percentage this year will be about 45 percent, though it could go high enough to match the modern peak of 48.7 percent in 1966.
All things being equal, high turnout should be good news for Democrats, particularly in a midterm when, traditionally, the young and minority voters who now favor the Donkey Party do not tend to participate in proportionate numbers. But there’s a lot we still don’t know about the composition of the electorate this year. On the one hand, Democrats appear certain to do better among college-educated white voters (and particularly women) than they did in 2016 — and perhaps among seniors as well. On the other hand, there are signs Republicans are beginning to match Democrats in voter enthusiasm as Trump bangs the drum for his divisive race-and-immigration-tinged message.
State-by-state early voting data this year does not paint a picture of either party having an enormous advantage, though it could be crucial in some close races. Based on nearly complete preelection numbers, McDonald thinks Arizona’s early voting breakdown is a good sign for Republican Senate candidate Martha McSally; Florida’s numbers are really too close to attribute an advantage for either side; and Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada’s show a modest Democratic edge. It’s really hard to figure, though, as Georgia’s high early vote, very close election illustrates:
Georgia nearly doubled its 2014 early vote, but the racial composition is nearly identical. Whites were 58.1% of the early voters in 2014 and are 58.1% in 2018. African-Americans were 30.8% of early voters in 2014 and are 30.8% in 2014. Who are the White voters? What about more young people voting (they are)? Hard to know for sure where this election stands just based on race demographics.
And then there’s Texas, where the early vote was so astonishingly high (it outstripped total turnout from 2014) that there really aren’t any relevant precedents.
So we won’t know the true significance of early voting until actual Election Day voting is done, and by then we’ll have stopped talking about indicators and have begun discussing results.