Most observers are aware that early voting is an important part of the elections process, but much less attention has been given to how early voting may alter candidate competition and voter decision making during the presidential primaries.
As Redlawsk, Tolbert, and Donovan point out in Why Iowa, a key feature of the current presidential primary process is that it is a sequential election. They write (p. 144):
…early events “matter” in part because news about outcomes in early states serves as a major source of information about candidate viability in a relatively low-information choice setting
When you add early voting to the mix, things get a lot more interesting, because some voters in later primary contests may not wait to cast their ballots until election day. They may cast the ballots early, based on a different set of signals.
Consider this: if Bernie Sanders wins the New Hampshire primary on February 9th, as some models predict, no-excuse absentee ballots are already in the hands of voters in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and a number of other large states.
And early in-person voting will have started in a number of states prior to the South Carolina primary–currently identified as Hillary Clinton’s “firewall”.
Early voting has become an important feature of presidential elections. While research has generally focused on whether programs increase turnout, few have considered whether early voting alters the information environment in campaigns. Those who vote early may do so before important information becomes available in the final weeks of a campaign. I speculate that early voting should benefit early front-runners in presidential nomination contests, as voters may cast early votes for these candidates before fully considering their less-known opponents. Examining exit-poll data from the 2008 Democratic primaries between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I find that Clinton indeed benefited from early voting in several early primary states.
Marc Meredith and Neil Maholtra, in their 2011 Election Law Journal article “Convenience Voting can Affect Election Outcomes,” take a different look at this question, taking advantage of the “natural experiment” that is ongoing in California–some precincts (< 250 registered voters) are forced into fully vote by mail elections while slightly larger neighboring precincts use the normal mix of no-excuse and election day voting.
The especially interesting thing about the 2008 California primary is that John Edwards and Rudy Giuliani withdrew from the race only five days before the primary, and Fred Thompson withdrew 15 days before the primary. These three candidates were clearly “not viable” for those who cast ballots after they withdrew. Not surprisingly, Edwards, Giuliani, and Thompson received a lot more support in the vote-by-mail precincts.
Overall, the authors conclude:
… the use of VBM affects the relative performance of candidates remaining in the race and increases the probability of selecting withdrawn candidates. Our findings have implications both for election administration policy and for the study of campaign effects in American elec- tions. Election officials should consider waiting until closer to Election Day to send out mail ballots, or instruct voters to wait until they are ready to make a decision before voting.
Will these same dynamics hold in 2016? I have some strong suspicions that they will, but it will not necessarily benefit the front runner, as Fullmer found in 2008. The volatility of the GOP field makes it much less predictable. Candidate drop outs later in the season, and just before particular primaries, should alter the vote totals of the remaining candidates, but in ways that are not really predictable ahead of time.
All this makes for an interesting intellectual puzzle, but perhaps not more than that. The percentages of voters who cast ballots more than a week before the scheduled primary is not usually that large. I’ll be posting more information on that matter in a few days.