Put simply: Early voters are decided voters, Gronke told me when early voting started in September. “Individuals who cast an early ballot make up their minds early,” he says.
There has been a shift in early voting demographics in the past two decades. “Prior to 2008, these ‘decided’ early voters matched demographic patterns that are well-established in American politics,” Gronke said; they were older, educated, wealthier, ideological, and highly partisan. And for the most part, particularly with mail-in voters, these early voters mostly leaned Republican, which can also be attributed to a strong GOP push for mail-in absentee voting in the 1990s and 2000s. Meanwhile, in-person early voters tend to lean more toward Democrats. North Carolina this year is a good example of how this plays out — Republicans led mail-in voting, and Democrat early voting turnout shot up when in-person voting windows opened.
Barack Obama’s presidential campaign made a big stride with Democratic early voting in 2008, targeting areas with higher Democratic voter potential — areas that also had higher populations of African-American voters. Black churches used Sunday services to push people to the polls in what they called “souls to the polls” initiatives, University of Wisconsin’s Burden recalls.
It was wildly successful. In North Carolina in 2008, more than 70 percent of African Americans voted during the early voting period, Jennifer Clark, counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said — a trend that continued into 2012. Early voting in North Carolina is running slightly behind the pace of 2012, according to McDonald’s analysis.
While African-American voters were not typically billed as early voters, Gronke notes that black Americans fit the behavioral profile of a “decided voter.”
“There was very little that would change the minds of many African Americans, particularly in 2008, when they had the first opportunity ever to cast a ballot for an African-American presidential candidate,” Gronke said. “Why wait?”
Some argue that early voting “limits the set of information available to voters,” as Eugene Kontorovich and John McGinnis wrote at Politico, but Clark says “that argument tends to not give voters enough credit.”
Some states opened early voting windows more than a month before Election Day — some before presidential debates — but most early voting happens closer to Election Day and after debates.
According to Gronke, who said he asks survey questions on this regularly, there is “virtually no evidence of ‘voter regret.'”