A standard line in my opening lecture to new students of political science is some variant of this:
Studying politics can be exciting and can be frustrating because political actors are also strategic actors. They make the rules, the break the rules, and then they rewrite the rules. While you may be able to generalize about political actors, it’s very hard to generalize about political outcomes.
This lesson applies to this year’s coverage of early voting. Both campaigns have learned lessons from past elections. Both campaigns have been monitoring legal changes in the states. And both campaigns are spending millions of dollars trying to mobilize the early vote by whatever means necessary.
Early voting is a moving target, and shooting at the bullseye in 2008 is almost surely going to miss the target in 2012.
If you line these and other stories up, it’s clear that the Obama campaign focused a lot of effort on recruiting more Democrats to apply for and cast absentee ballots in Iowa. Result: an early Democratic surge in absentee votes. Reaction: Romney campaign has redoubled their mobilization efforts in response.
As I posted a few days ago, the same thing appears to be happening in Florida. Given the uncertainty over the early in-person voting period, the Obama campaign redirected resources to encourage Democratic-leaning voters to request and cast absentee ballots. Result? An “advantage” for the Democrats in absentee ballots!
This is why I’ve been resisting making broad conclusions about what these early early voting numbers mean. Not every commentator has been so circumspect. This might make for a nice story that will be forgotten a week later (see: Iowa) but it doesn’t make for informed political commentary.