As early voting breaks records across the United States, political analysts and campaigns examine tons of voter data, looking for clues on key questions: Who is voting? And who wins?
At some level, the answers can be straightforward. Registered Democrats significantly outnumber registered Republicans – by 14 percentage points – in states that report party membership of voters, according to an Associated Press analysis of early voting.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The choices of many Americans do not match the registration of their party. Meanwhile, polls show Republicans heeded President Donald Trump’s baseless warnings about postal voting, and many intend to vote on election day. That means the early Democratic push could give way to a Republican push on Tuesday.
The picture is further clouded by the unprecedented nature of the American vote. While Democrats crave signs that key parts of their coalition – young voters, black voters, new voters – are engaged, comparisons to 2016 are difficult.
Here’s a look at what we know – and don’t know – about early voters:
EARLY VOTING POINTS
As of Friday afternoon, 86.8 million people voted in the presidential election. That’s 63% of the total who voted in the 2016 race. Most election experts believe the United States will see between 150 and 160 million votes cast in 2020, which would mean we’re probably over half of the vote. In one state, Texas, more votes have already been cast than in 2016.
Democrats have a big lead in early voting on the GOP – 47% to 33% – according to AP analysis of data from political data firm L2.
That doesn’t mean the Democrats are going to win. But it increases the pressure on Republicans to have a similar – or more – advantage on Election Day.
NEW ELECTORS ARE PRESENT
The big question about voter turnout in all elections is: which side is recruiting new voters? The data shows Democrats are accomplishing this – but not necessarily as dramatically as some of the big global numbers might suggest.
More than 1 in 4 of all ballots – 27% – were cast by new or infrequent voters, according to the AP analysis. These are voters who have never voted before or who voted in less than half of the elections to which they were eligible. It seems like a lot, but it’s not too many compared to previous years. Democratic data company Catalist found that in 2016, around a quarter of the electorate did not vote in the previous presidential election.
Still, the number may well increase, as new and infrequent voters tend to vote near or on election day. And even small increases in narrow battlefields can make a difference.
An increase in that number appears to be good news for Democrats. Forty-three percent of rare and new voters are registered Democrats, compared to a quarter who are Republicans. The remaining third are registered as independent or with a minor party – a group that tends to favor Democratic candidates.
Voters are clustered in the Sunbelt, especially in states like Florida, North Carolina, and especially Texas, which Democrats hope to win by mobilizing large swathes of the electorate who do not participate in most contests.
“Democrats are already expanding their electorate,” said Tom Bonier of Democratic data company TargetSmart. “That would certainly sound favorable for Biden – taken with the warning we’ve heard a million times before that we don’t know how many more voters will turn up on election day.”
BLACK ELECTORS NOW STABLE
Biden’s fate may be linked to a high turnout of black voters in battlefield states. So far, around 9% of the early vote has been cast by African Americans, roughly on par with the 10% of black voters formed in 2016, according to a Pew Research estimate of voters in that election.
Black voters closely follow their share of the electorate on several battlefields. In North Carolina, they make up 21% of all first voters and all registered voters. In Georgia, they represent 30% of early voting and 32% of registered voters.
A slight drop in black voter turnout from the high numbers in 2008 and 2012 played a role in the Democrats’ defeat in 2016, and the party and its supporters are watching closely what happens this time around.
Data to date is ambiguous. There has been an increase in the vote of older African Americans. Black voters 65 and over are already one of the most reliable demographics, but according to data from TargetSmart, they have already exceeded their numbers in six key battlegrounds – Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina. North and Texas.
At the same time, according to data from the International Union of Service Employees, younger and less trustworthy black voters make up a larger share of the black vote right now than in 2016. This is a sign of a larger engagement in the segment of the electorate which fell in 2016.
Organizers say black voters are reeling from the pandemic and economic collapse, which hit African Americans hardest, and the nation’s racial calculus. This motivates them to overcome persistent obstacles to voting, said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the International Union of Service Employees.
“Black and brown communities have faced these multiple crises,” Henry said. This strengthened their willingness to vote, she added.
SEIU says 3 out of 4 black voters have yet to vote in Pennsylvania. The union is shifting resources to its participation operations in Pennsylvania over concerns that black voters have been slower to return mail-in ballots.
DEMOCRATS HOPE A BRIGHT PLACE AMONG YOUNG VECTORS
AP analysis on Friday showed that 11.3% of early votes were cast by voters between the ages of 18 and 29. This is a slight increase from 2016, when 9.6% of early votes were cast by people under the age of 30, according to TargetSmart.
And on Sunbelt’s battlefields in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, young voters are running at a high rate of 30% or more, according to AP data.
It’s still a good sign for Democrats, but very preliminary. Young voters tend to be Democrats, and when Democrats rush to the polls, it’s no surprise that their numbers are higher.
Young voters turned out at levels never seen before in 2018, with 36% of those who were eligible participating, according to the U.S. census. It helped Democrats take control of the House of Representatives.
Young voter advocates were concerned that the pandemic was causing a sharp drop in voter registration among 18 and 19 year olds who had just become eligible.
However, young voters still make up a larger share of the registered voter population in almost every state than they were in 2016, according to the Center for Information Research and Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. This reflects both the population growth and the increase in enrollments that led to 2018.
Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who runs the ElectProject.org site and closely monitors early voting, cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from changes in youth voting from 2016. ” The participation rate of young people is on the rise, ”he said. “Everything is in place. This is what happens when you have a high participation rate. “
DOES THE HIGH PERFORMANCE MAKE THE RESULT BIG?
Republicans say the expected record turnout won’t matter much in battlefield states.
When all the votes are counted, the Trump campaign predicts that the turnout in Battlefield States in 2020 will be similar to 2016.
“What they brought to the electorate is pretty predictable,” Nick Trainer, director of battlefield strategy for the Trump campaign, said of Democrats. “We will integrate our new voters into the electorate ourselves, and everything will come out in the washing machine.”
It’s a clean break with several election experts, who see signs both in the early numbers of the votes and in polls of voter enthusiasm on the battlefield.
John Couvillon, a Republican pollster who tracks early voting, said the Trump campaign was too dismissive. “I heard the same kind of attitude in 2008, when Republicans denied the impressive early turnout Obama was generating,” Couvillon said.
McDonald notes that there is no way to find out until polling day.
However, he noted that while the turnout is low, that’s not necessarily good news for Trump given the large early voting lead Democrats have amassed. That would mean the president’s campaign would have to win on election day by an even bigger margin.
“They better hope they are wrong,” said McDonald.