Early voting has changed the game in modern politics, and that means snail mail is winning.
On Friday, absentee voting kicked off in three states: Minnesota, Virginia, and South Dakota, and it signals the final phase of ‘midterms 2018.’ Sort of. It has slowed down the maneuvers of a campaign culture that has always prized speed and power, forcing it to now meet the wants of an electorate that has threatened a formerly predictable timeline by lengthening it.
And if the recent past is any indicator, campaigns are getting set to move with greater precision. In 2016, of the 141 million Americans who voted the general election, 41 percent voted absentee or early That’s nearly double the number of early voters in 2004, according to the US Election Assistance Commission.
What does that mean for a campaign just 46 days out from the election? It means the final push starts earlier and weaves like the Amazon curving through the rainforest until the polls open - only way, way faster.
“Vote Early, Vote Often”
They’re shouting it from the mountaintops: “Vote early folks! Avoid those lines! Avoid the rain!”
Campaigns want those votes put to bed, and they want their real worries – those swing voter problem children and independents who are likely to vote – made predictable. They want narrowing in on those who have not yet voted.
Consider that in 2016, 80.1 percent of absentee ballots mailed out were completed and mailed back and that within most states, 90 percent of absentee ballots were returned and submitted for counting.
And so, make no mistake, they are tracking you earlier. Campaigns can read the ballots – er, tea leaves - based on early returns to see where their solid base is leaning, and then it can strike at those folks who have not yet cast a ballot.
Also, they can target voters who are less likely to vote but are more likely to show up at a polling station if they do vote. It used to be that operatives pushed through the spring and summer at a steady pace, mixing action with reaction to their opponent's moves and to the news of the day.
It was concluded by a hard sprint to the finish and the effort ended mere hours after polls opened. Then it was a crapshoot until returns came in. Ties were loosened, shoes were kicked off, and couches were settled into as campaign teams glued themselves to television sets and phones fielding calls from precincts reporting count totals. Early and absentee ballots were in many cases a much smaller slice to be added. That is now gone.
Bombardment May Ease Sooner
Once early and absentee voters turn in their ballots, the incessant phone calls and door knocks tend to stop. So, if you mail that ballot, you are likely to be left alone. Amazing. Unless you drive down the street or turn on your television. Yard signs, billboards, and attack ads are still going to be out there (if you have a problem with this, consider flavoring that ballot with a little electoral reform initiative, just saying.)
Planned Attacks Lose their Punch
A last-minute revelation of an opponent’s illicit affair? So-and-so didn’t pay taxes in 2005? Slut-shaming a female candidate (something we have seen in recent years)? Didn’t graduate with the degree they said they did? Some opponent claimed to be Lutheran, but church records show they’re -gasp - Catholic!?!
First, people just don’t care as much unless a law was broken, or someone was hurt. Your guy forced to make an embarrassing admission? Meh. After the 90s, a moral guide isn’t what people are after anyway because they are surprised by very little; they know one doesn’t exist. So that breaking news item the night before better be gooood.
Second, a really good shocker of a revelation is not always easy to come by. Opposition research and the operatives needed to roll out multiple revelations slowly is expensive so don’t expect it to be well done in state and local elections. You’re probably tired of hearing it anyway.
Welcome to election month.
Check out your state's timeline with this early voting calendar.