Three reasons it's too soon for Iowa Democrats to celebrate an early voting lead

Part of a series on GOTV in Iowa this year

Less than two weeks remain before county auditors start mailing absentee ballots to Iowa voters. On September 22, the Iowa Secretary of State's Office will start releasing updates on absentee ballots requested and returned statewide and by Congressional district. As in 2012, Bleeding Heartland will post those totals daily.

Data from a few of the larger counties indicate that the Iowa Democratic Party's head start on canvassing this summer has produced a clear advantage on absentee ballots requested. Iowa Republican blogger Craig Robinson is fretting about the GOP "getting out worked when it comes to early voting." Former Iowa Senate GOP staffer Don McDowell is upset with conservatives who refuse to vote before election day. He has seen more than a few statehouse races lost narrowly after Republican candidates were crushed in the early vote.

However, it's way too soon for Democrats to be over-confident about this year's early vote lead, for three reasons.

1. The number of absentee ballot requests so far isn't large in absolute terms.

Today I contacted election offices in the ten Iowa counties with the largest number of registered voters: Polk, Linn, Scott, Johnson, Black Hawk, Dubuque, Story, Pottawattamie, Woodbury, and Dallas. Polk County is the largest by far with 266,258 active registered voters, more than twice as many as the second most-populous county. Democrats have submitted a large share of the 13,245 total absentee ballots requested. As of today, Polk County Democrats had requested 8,180 absentee ballots, Republicans had requested 2,349 ballots, no-party voters had requested 2,687 ballots, and 29 voters with some other party registration had requested ballots. I assume that the bulk of the no-party voters who have requested ballots so far have been identified by Democratic canvassers. Walk lists for door-knockers include many independents considered likely to lean toward the Democratic ticket, and Iowa Democrats did well in turning out no-party voters to vote early for President Obama in 2012.

Still, the early voters mobilized so far represent a small fraction of what Democrats will need in the Des Moines area to carry statewide elections this year. More than 145,000 Polk County voters cast ballots in the 2006 midterms, and more than 162,000 did so in 2010. The Des Moines metro area's population has continued to grow since then.

Some of Iowa's large counties don't yet have absentee ballot request numbers broken down by party affiliation, but to give you an idea, the auditor's office in Scott County (Iowa's third most populous) has received about 5,500 absentee ballot requests so far. Even assuming Democrats have generated the lion's share, they will need to mobilize many more Quad Cities area supporters than that during the next eight weeks. If the 2006 and 2010 turnout is any guide, at least 56,000 Scott County residents will cast ballots in this year's general election.

In Johnson County, Iowa's fourth-largest by population, John Deeth reported that through September 5,

3567 Democrats in the county had requested early ballots for November 4, vs. only 108 Republicans. Another 1275 no party and third party voters had turned in requests, but the Democratic field canvass had collected most of those.

A 33 to 1 ratio sounds great, but Denise O'Brien lost the 2006 secretary of agriculture race despite outpolling Bill Northey by more than 13,000 votes in Johnson County. Similarly, a nearly 14,000 vote advantage for Michael Mauro in Johnson County in 2010 wasn't enough for him to beat Matt Schultz in the secretary of state race.

The statewide statistical report for 2010 indicates that 155,421 Democrats voted early that year, compared to 136,243 Republicans who cast absentee ballots. Some Iowa House and Senate Democratic incumbents were saved by absentee ballots in 2010, and early voting may have been decisive for Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack too. Nevertheless, plenty of Democratic candidates found that the early vote lead wasn't enough to overcome the much stronger GOP turnout on election day.

2. Republicans have time to make up a lot of ground on the early vote.

County auditors have seen a huge influx in absentee ballot requests since the Iowa GOP's first mass mailing went out last week. In Polk County, the total number of absentee ballot requests from registered Republicans stood at 945 on Friday, September 5. On Monday, September 8, that number jumped to 1,708. By today, the number was up to 2,349. As I mentioned above, Democrats still have a lead in absentee ballot requests in Polk County, but that lead is shrinking.

The same phenomenon is likely occurring everywhere. The elections official I spoke with in Dubuque told me that as of today, Democrats in that county had submitted 1,046 absentee ballot requests, compared to 475 for Republicans and 382 for no-party voters. He added that 202 of the requests from Republicans arrived in today's mail. Presumably last week's mailing will continue to generate large batches of request forms over the next several days.

Governor Terry Branstad is sitting on a huge pile of cash and believes in early GOTV. He will make sure the Republican Party of Iowa continues to encourage reliable supporters to vote before election day.

The Iowa Democratic Party had good results from its mass mailings of absentee ballot request forms to supporters in 2012. Whether that tactic will work well enough in a non-presidential election year has yet to be seen.

3. We don't know yet how many of the absentee ballot requests have come from the most important voters for Democrats.

The Democratic turnout strategy is not rocket science. After losing a slew of state legislative seats and some key statewide offices in 2010, Democrats delivered this state's electoral votes to President Barack Obama in 2012 through strong early GOTV. The voter targeting methods worked surprisingly well, considering how mediocre the president's approval rating was in Iowa throughout much of 2012. So the top priority for 2014 will be turning out Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who voted in 2008 and/or 2012 but not in 2010.

In theory, Democratic canvassers are using lists of "sporadic" or "unreliable" voters. While I believe that is generally the case, field organizers and volunteers are contacting some of the more dedicated supporters as well (in part to encourage them to volunteer), and they are pushing absentee ballot requests with everyone. Any vote banked early is valuable for a candidate, because it shrinks the universe of supporters who need to be contacted by phone or in person closer to election day. That said, an absentee ballot from someone like me, who never misses an election, is much less valuable than an absentee ballot from someone who didn't vote in 2010. I haven't seen evidence yet that the Iowa Democrats' early vote lead is coming from those unreliable voters.

The available data doesn't say much about where the early voters live in each county. Bruce Braley, Jack Hatch, and Dave Loebsack don't care where mail-in votes come from in Johnson County--they just need a hell of a lot of them. But for Kevin Kinney's race in Iowa Senate district 39, it makes a huge difference whether the Democratic absentee ballot requests in Johnson County are coming from Iowa City (useless) or North Liberty (priceless). By the same token, every Polk County ballot from a loyal Democrat counts the same for Staci Appel in IA-03, but State Representatives John Forbes and Joe Riding need a strong early vote in Urbandale and Altoona, respectively.

It's worth noting that absentee ballot requests are not the only fruit of a successful canvassing program. Lots of people, including some sporadic voters, prefer to vote on election day when they do participate. Direct contact helps campaigns identify those supporters early, so they can be targeted for GOTV closer to November 4--assuming they are really supporters, and not just people who said they were backing someone as an "Iowa nice" way to get rid of the door-knocker.

A good canvassing program also helps the parties weed out bad addresses early, wasting fewer resources closer to election day.

All in all, Democrats can feel encouraged about the early voting numbers, but they should not feel complacent.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

SEPTEMBER 16 UPDATE: The Iowa GOP's mass mailing of absentee ballot request forms has significantly cut into the Democratic early vote lead. As of September 16 in Polk County, Republicans had requested 3,770 absentee ballots, more than twice as many as a week ago. Democratic early ballot requests stand at 10,058 in Polk County, and no-party voters (most of whom were probably identified by Democratic canvassers) have requested 3,283 ballots in Iowa's largest county.

As of today, Scott County Democrats have requested 3,746 early ballots, compared to 1,729 for Republicans and 1,910 no-party voters. Again, we see a Democratic edge but not an overwhelming one. It will be interesting to watch the numbers develop as the Iowa Democratic Party's mass mailings of absentee ballot request forms filter through.  

  • Perhaps not germane but

    Reading TIR since it's inception and KrustyKonservative before that, I've seen some really far-out commentary about the practice of early voting. The craziest is the relatively widespread and seemingly truly believed notion that the Repub candidate actually "wins the election" (on election day) and then has his win stolen by the fraudulent and illegitimate early and absentee ballots.

    DVFO is the most zealous evangelist of that doctrine. For some time I thought it important to try changing her mind about that, but no more. As a Demo I now kind of enjoy her railing and tirading, actually wishing that no-party's and independents everywhere could regularly read her and several of the others.

    I have an internet correspondent friend who lives up in the rube quadrant and he honestly believes there is some sort of moral failure in people who vote early. That's my characterization because he never says actually that, however the sum of what he does say about it every two years does add up to "a moral lapse in character".

    • there are some strange conspiracy theories

      surrounding early voting, no question about that. The Republican idea that voting early is illegitimate or unpatriotic prompted Don McDowell's Facebook rant.

      • A common version

        is people who believe "they only count the absentees if it's close." WRONG. Auditors count every ballot they're legally able to count. Even if the race is uncontested. We've had to call absentee boards back five, six days after an election because ONE ballot showed up.

  • Senate 39

    "...for Kevin Kinney's race in Iowa Senate district 39, it makes a huge difference whether the Democratic absentee ballot requests in Johnson County are coming from Iowa City (useless) or North Liberty (priceless)."

    Democratic absentee percentages are actually running HIGHER in North Liberty than in Iowa City and Coralville. And looking by House/Senate district within Johnson, House 77/Senate 39 is running almost even with Vicki Lensing's House 85, impressive when you consider that a lot of Kinney/Stutsman's turf is rural while Lensing's is 100% in city limits.

    Those numbers will shift as in person early voting starts. Also, the first lesson new staffers are taught in Johnson County is to stay out of student neighborhoods till after Lease Day on August 1.

    • I prefer in-person early voting myself

      it makes sense more people in Iowa City will choose to do that.

      • Goes back and forth in Johnson

        Certain cycles (2004) field pushed vote by mail. In the two Obama elections they pushed satellites harder. 2010 is impossible to compare because the 21 bar vote overshadowed everything else in early voting. That campaign pushed satellites. Tangent: anyone comparing any Johnson County numbers between 2010 and 2014 needs to remember 21 Bar. By my best estimates - and that is literally part of my job - about 5000 voters out of a total turnout of 54,000 were motivated to vote by the bar issue, and about half of those voted ONLY on the bar issue and left the rest of the ballot blank.

        For obvious reasons voting at the auditor's office is easiest for me. Not many people have a more convenient site than four feet in front of their desk, with the possible exception of our voters who LIVE in a polling place at Quardangle dorm. Where I vote usually depends on the specifics of the satellite schedule  - where I work and which site I want to support. I've been the very first voter once so I don't need to again. This year I'll probably vote at one of our Votemobile sites, probably Oct. 17 at my son's high school.

        • oops

          forgot to say this cycle there's clearly a shift by the Dems toward more of a vote by mail model.

  • reliable early or absentee voters

    The Democratic model in the past has been to canvass and target non-reliable voters in a year that is not a presidential. They also rarely target reliable voters, even those like me who frequently vote early or absentee, this way. Typically if you are a voter who votes in 4 out of 4 of the last elections, you are not an early vote target.

    So the place we'll see those folks add to the numbers (which is the BH primary concern in this post) will be when the actual voting starts.

    Finally, I think in the past the goal has been 1-2 percent of the projected vote to come from absentee or early voting. If this is a statewide goal, then I can see where it might not be enough for legislative candidates of either party.

    • 1-2%?!?

      It was more liek 20-30% of total vote in most counties in 2008 and 2012, with that early share haviliy D slanted. In Johnson we were over 50% early in both 08 and 12, and at 48% in 2010 (but again, anyone comparing anything in Johnson to 2010 needs to factor in the bar vote)

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