Early voting starts today in Iowa, 40 days before the November 2 general election. The Iowa Democratic Party has made it easy to download an absentee ballot request form or find your county auditor’s office to vote early in person. I plan to vote at the Polk County auditor’s office the next time I need to be in downtown Des Moines on another errand. Some of the larger counties will open additional satellite voting locations. For instance, 11 early voting places will be open in Polk County between October 12 and October 23.
The Secretary of State’s Office is updating absentee ballot totals every weekday here. As of September 22, 62,591 Iowans had requested absentee ballots: 37,219 Democrats, 14,219 Republicans, 11,116 with no party affiliation and 37 belonging to some other party. How good those numbers are for Democrats is a matter of debate.
The Des Moines Register put a bad spin on the numbers yesterday in a front-page story on how both political parties are pushing early voting:
Democrats have made early voting, which begins Thursday in Iowa, a particular focus in the past four election cycles, while Iowa Republicans typically focused on mobilizing voters on Election Day.
But this year, requests for ballots by Democrats in Polk, Linn, Scott and Johnson counties – where Gov. Chet Culver received one-third of his support in 2006 – are down 25 percent from four years ago.
The snapshot worries some Democratic strategists. Some county election officials think it signals lukewarm enthusiasm for Democratic candidates.
“I would be very concerned if your base counties are down absentee ballots right now, because it’s a trend that can foretell turnout,” said Jessica Vanden Berg, a Democratic strategist who oversaw the Iowa Democrats’ 2002 early voter program and since has run winning U.S. Senate campaigns. […]
Dan Tokaji, an Ohio State University professor who studies early voting around the country, said the absentee ballot snapshot in Polk and other large Iowa counties is a momentum indicator, although not decisive.
“There are always things that can change. But this is a bad omen for Democrats,” Tokaji said. “I’m skeptical that they signal something dramatic. But it’s a sign the Democratic base is not as motivated as it has been in recent elections.”
A sharp drop in turnout from large counties would be disastrous for statewide Democratic candidates and our three Congressional incumbents. However, Iowa Democratic Party executive director Norm Sterzenbach pushed back with an e-mail blast yesterday. Excerpt:
Here’s where we are right now:
The Secretary of State’s offices shows we continue to expand our lead in absentee ballots requested, with 35,711 registered Democrats and only 13,579 registered Republicans requesting ballots. Our internal numbers show an even greater, 4-to-1 lead among our Democratic supporters. Our data also shows that over 85 percent of registered Independents that have requested an absentee ballot were prompted to do so through our outreach programs and are supporting our candidates, in a state like Iowa support from independent voters is the key to victory.
Historically we are also in a good position. At this point in 2006, although our mail piece had already hit households across the state, we did not have this many absentee ballots requested. With the 2010 mail piece arriving in mailboxes this week and an increased focus on early vote signups, we expect this lead to significantly increase. We have knocked on more doors, made more phone calls and recruited more volunteers than at this point in 2006, by every comparable measure our program is stronger today than it was four years ago. This is why we are outpacing republicans by such a wide margin.
While 2006 can be used to compare our progress, it’s important to realize that the 2010 campaign plan is different. In 2006 our program focused on recruiting likely voters to vote early, we have focused on unlikely voters and those who voted for the first time in 2008 with this year’s campaign. Unlikely voters and first time voters in 2008, the ones who may otherwise fail to vote in this election, are the key to winning this year and they are the ones targeted by our current program. These unlikely voters, even in traditionally Republican areas like Sioux City and Council Bluffs, overwhelmingly support Governor Culver and Roxanne Conlin which makes them the key to our victory. The fact that a majority of our requests come from sporadic voters while a majority of GOP requests come from regular voters means our plan will be successful.
I can’t confirm whether Sterzenbach is right about the Democratic requests coming from unreliable midterm election voters. Targeting those people for early GOTV makes sense. As a precinct captain for John Kerry in 2004, I remember contacting certain voters again and again asking them to vote early. It was frustrating for me and for the people who enjoy the experience of voting on election day.
Some good news for Iowa Democrats was buried in yesterday’s front-page Register story. Absentee ballot requests were up 9 percent in Black Hawk County (containing Waterloo and Cedar Falls) and up 30 percent in Woodbury County (Sioux City). Democrats lead Republicans in absentee ballot requests in both counties. Woodbury County has three open Iowa House seats and two open Iowa Senate seats this year. House districts 1 and 2 and Senate district 1, all in Sioux City, are important holds for Democrats. Meanwhile, Republicans are targeting Democratic-held House districts 19, 20 and 21 in Black Hawk County.
Kathie Obradovich suggests today that the Iowa Democratic Party may be risking its base by targeting marginal voters. I understand why the Register’s reporting has concentrated on absentee ballot numbers from the most populous areas. Our statewide and Congressional candidates will certainly depend on strong Democratic turnout in Polk, Linn, Johnson and Scott counties. However, most of the battleground Iowa House and Senate districts lie outside those counties. Polk County had only one competitive state legislative race in 2008: House district 59 in the western suburbs. None of the incumbent Democratic legislators in Johnson County have Republican opponents this year. Only one legislative race in Linn County is expected to be competitive: House district 37, which first-term Republican Renee Schulte won by 13 votes in 2008. Scott County has only a couple of competitive races: House district 81, held by first-term Democrat Phyllis Thede, and the open House district 84.
If Democratic absentee ballot requests are down in the largest Iowa counties compared to 2006, but up statewide, as Sterzenbach says, that could point to strong Democratic early voting in the battleground legislative districts. Democratic prospects for holding the Iowa House depend on strong turnout in places like district 18 (Bremer, Fayette and Black Hawk counties), district 51 (Carroll, Crawford and Sac counties), district 74 (Warren County), district 90 (Jefferson, Van Buren and Wapello counties), and district 99 (Pottawattamie County).
Republican Party of Iowa chairman Matt Strawn told the Register that the GOP is mostly encouraging voters to cast early ballots in person, rather than by mail. If they are successful, we should see the absentee ballot gap between Democrats and Republicans narrow in the coming weeks. A few hundred thousand Iowans are likely to cast ballots before election day.
Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.
If you do vote early, please remember to vote the whole ballot, including yes on retaining the Iowa Supreme Court justices and yes on question 1, which would create a Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.