Iowa Democrats' early vote lead remains smaller than in 2012

I have good news and bad news.

Registered Democrats in Iowa have requested more absentee ballots than Republicans, and a higher percentage of Democrats have returned those ballots to county auditors.

On the other hand, a daily review of data released by the Iowa Secretary of State’s offices shows Democrats are not building the absentee ballot lead they enjoyed in 2012, when strong early GOTV delivered this state for President Barack Obama. Furthermore, Iowa Democrats are lagging further behind their 2012 numbers than are Republicans.

Hillary Clinton is poised to win the presidency and could carry Iowa, but Democrats have reason to worry about the cushion she will take into election day.


At the end of this post, I enclose tables showing Iowa absentee ballot totals statewide and in each Congressional district as of October 18 and at the same point in the last presidential campaign. I used October 16, 2012 for comparison because that date represents the same number of days before the November 6 general election.

Key points:

• As of October 18, Iowa Democrats had requested 28,944 more absentee ballots than Republicans. As of October 16, 2012, the Democratic lead was 74,130.

• As of October 18, county auditors had received 38,069 more absentee ballots from Democrats than from Republicans. As of October 16, 2012, the Democratic lead was 54,081.

• At this writing, Iowa Republicans have requested as many absentee ballots this year as they had at the same point in 2012, while Democrats are at only 80 percent of their 2012 ballot request number. That’s an improvement on where the party stood on September 30, and considerably better than the numbers looked on September 20, when Democrats had requested less than half as many ballots as four years earlier. But it doesn’t bode well for Democratic chances of building a much larger early vote lead by election day.

• Absentee ballot requests from no-party voters in Iowa are only at 77 percent of the number at this point in 2012. In absolute terms, no-party voters have requested 24,040 fewer ballots this year. That’s bad news for Democrats, who did a much better job identifying supporters aligned with neither party four years ago. The president couldn’t have carried the early vote in Iowa by 137,355 without winning a majority of the 181,260 no-party voters who cast absentee ballots that year, because going into election day, registered Democrats had banked just 68,359 more votes than Republicans.

Democrats can draw comfort from a few trends.

• So far this year, Democrats have a better absentee ballot return rate in Iowa (59 percent) than Republicans do (44 percent).

Democrats deliberately started this year’s early voting drive later, supposedly a strategic choice aimed at leaving fewer ballots on the table. Going into election day 2012, Democrats had about 25,000 unreturned absentee ballots, compared to just 10,000 outstanding for Republicans.

“Ballot chase” close to election day is very labor-intensive–one reason I recommend voting early in person rather than through the mail. Keeping that return rate high over the next couple of weeks will be important to free up resources for targeting less reliable voters closer to election day.

• Not every Iowan will vote a straight ticket. A few weeks ago I collected an absentee ballot request form from a suburban Republican woman who wasn’t planning to vote for Donald Trump, and that was before the GOP nominee’s downward spiral following the release of a damaging 2005 videotape. Trump’s favorability rating among Republicans nationally has dropped considerably since the first presidential debate on September 26. Multiple polls have shown Trump underwater with college-educated women since the “grab them by the pussy” conversation went public.

We haven’t seen many Iowa polls this month, but if Clinton can consolidate more Democratic support than Trump has among Republicans, her early vote lead may end up larger than the gap in absentee ballot requests would indicate.

• Iowa Democrats believe their mailings and canvassing efforts have produced a majority of the absentee ballot requests from no-party voters. When the election results are certified next month, we’ll find out whether that’s accurate or wishful thinking.

Any comments about the presidential election are welcome in this thread. I’m continuing to update absentee ballot numbers every weekday here. Early vote tables from 2012 are archived here at Bleeding Heartland and on the Secretary of State’s website, which presents the data in a different format.

UPDATE: Added below the absentee ballot numbers for October 19, 2016, and October 17, 2012. Democrats have requested 29,761 more absentee ballots than Republicans have. County auditors have received 38,278 more ballots from Democrats than from Republicans. The Democratic return rate is now 61 percent, while the Republican return rate is 47 percent.

SECOND UPDATE: As of October 20, the Democratic lead in absentee ballot requests grew to 31,895 and the lead in ballots received by auditors ticked up slightly to 38,955. The Democratic return rate ticked up to 63 percent, and the Republican return rate rose to 50 percent.

At the equivalent point in the last presidential campaign (October 18, 2012), Democrats led Republicans in ballot requests by more than 70,000 and in ballots received by more than 55,000. The return rate at that time was about 67 percent for Democrats and just under 63 percent for Republicans.

OCTOBER 21 UPDATE: Democrats expanded their early vote lead again, to 34,812 in absentee ballot requests and 39,583 in ballots received by county auditors.

Pat Rynard broke down the early voting numbers by county at Iowa Starting Line. It’s well worth a look to see which counties are performing well for Democrats and Republicans. Regarding the statewide numbers, Rynard commented,

Democrats still lag their 2012 numbers, but they’ve made up significant ground from their poor early data in September that worried activists. It has always been unlikely that Democrats will get the same number of early votes as they did when Barack Obama was on the ticket. They don’t need to either, considering Obama won Iowa by six points in 2012. They just have to get close. And 84% is getting pretty close. If they bump that up to around 90%, Hillary Clinton will be well within striking range of carrying Iowa.

Also interesting is how Democrats have slowly but steadily increased their percent over 2012 day by day. Republicans’ numbers have jumped around, largely due to the bulk of their absentee efforts coming from mailers. While Republicans get a big boost every time an absentee mailer drops, Democrats have built their numbers through a huge field team and in-person early voting sites that slowly accumulate every day. Republicans and their field team and volunteers are still doing a great job in bringing in numbers better than their 2012 results, especially in a year where voter frustration is high. And they’re closing the gap between them and Democrats. […]

Because of both parties’ decisions to start their absentee efforts later, both lag their 2012 return rates. Democrats are likely better because they’re pushing lots of in-person voting (which has a return rate of 100%!). Republicans have 74,387 ballots still out in the field, while Democrats have 67,327 unreturned. Both sides have a lot of work to do in the final weeks.

Absentee ballots requested by Iowa voters as of October 18, 2016
Congressional district Democrats Republicans no-party voters other total
IA-01 44,125 30,522 22,595 274 97,516
IA-02 46,297 30,987 20,728 255 98,267
IA-03 44,035 36,264 17,441 253 97,993
IA-04 31,489 39,229 18,294 217 89,229
 
statewide 165,946 137,002 79,058 999 383,005

Absentee ballots received by Iowa county auditors as of October 18, 2016
Congressional district Democrats Republicans no-party voters other total
IA-01 25,833 13,380 10,272 120 49,605
IA-02 28,454 13,977 9,902 122 52,455
IA-03 25,904 16,463 7,723 119 50,209
IA-04 18,237 16,539 8,523 116 43,415
 
statewide 98,428 60,359 36,420 477 195,684

Absentee ballots requested by Iowa voters as of October 16, 2012
Congressional district Democrats Republicans no-party voters other total
IA-01 56,208 30,728 30,234 110 117,280
IA-02 57,960 31,354 28,187 123 117,624
IA-03 53,778 37,293 23,118 121 114,310
IA-04 39,130 37,708 21,559 94 98,491
 
statewide 207,076 137,083 103,098 448 447,705

Absentee ballots received by Iowa county auditors as of October 16, 2012
Congressional district Democrats Republicans no-party voters other total
IA-01 36,520 18,121 15,700 56 70,397
IA-02 37,982 18,293 14,578 76 70,929
IA-03 33,166 20,896 11,072 52 65,186
IA-04 25,278 21,555 11,198 54 58,085
 
statewide 132,946 78,865 52,548 238 264,597

Absentee ballots requested by Iowa voters as of October 19, 2016
Congressional district Democrats Republicans no-party voters other total
IA-01 45,881 32,006 23,810 294 101,991
IA-02 48,572 32,498 22,077 272 103,419
IA-03 46,701 38,618 18,725 278 104,322
IA-04 33,102 41,373 19,506 234 94,215
 
statewide 174,256 144,495 84,118 1,078 403,947

Absentee ballots received by Iowa county auditors as of October 19, 2016
Congressional district Democrats Republicans no-party voters other total
IA-01 27,896 15,071 11,413 138 54,518
IA-02 31,082 16,407 11,270 137 58,896
IA-03 27,793 17,889 8,452 129 54,263
IA-04 19,735 18,861 9,484 134 48,214
 
statewide 106,506 68,228 40,619 538 215,891

Absentee ballots requested by Iowa voters as of October 17, 2012
Congressional district Democrats Republicans no-party voters other total
IA-01 57,423 31,715 31,380 121 120,639
IA-02 59,506 32,569 29,488 132 121,695
IA-03 55,370 38,847 24,151 125 118,493
IA-04 40,364 39,239 22,682 107 102,392
 
statewide 212,663 142,370 107,701 485 463,219

Absentee ballots received by Iowa county auditors as of October 17, 2012
Congressional district Democrats Republicans no-party voters other total
IA-01 38,230 19,406 16,903 69 74,608
IA-02 40,388 20,334 16,175 84 76,981
IA-03 35,374 23,192 12,193 57 70,816
IA-04 26,639 23,317 12,143 65 62,164
 
statewide 140,631 86,249 57,414 275 284,569

  • Clinton vs Kerry/Gore

    I’m curious how her numbers look in comparison to John Kerry and Al Gore? Obama’s machine in Iowa was something we have never seen before. Obama’s victories in Iowa were larger than usual too. So, how does she compare in early voting to Gore and Kerry? Where the elections was decided by less than 1 percent.

    • early voting was so much less widespread

      in those elections, especially 2000, that I don’t think the comparison would be meaningful.

      I can tell you that Kerry’s campaign set a statewide vote goal for 700,000 in Iowa, assuming that would be enough to win the state. Although he won more than 735,000 votes here (including a majority of the early votes), Republicans were able to increase turnout even more to allow Bush to win by about 10,000 votes. At that time the Iowa GOP did very little to promote early voting. Like Republicans nationwide, they relied largely on a “72-hour strategy” to get out the vote right before election day.

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