Why You Should Ignore Early-Voting Totals

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A week before Election Day, both parties are spinning early-voting tallies as a positive omen for their midterm prospects. “Despite national momentum being on the Republican side for months, we are not seeing anything resembling a Republican surge,” New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee Chairman, wrote in a memo out today. That’s not, of course, how the other side sees it. “This election cycle, Republicans are performing much better than in previous cycles and closing the gap on the Democrats in our targeted Congressional districts,” Ken Spain, a National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman, told the New York Times.

The not-so-secret truth is that while parsing early numbers is a popular parlor game, it’s not a particularly useful indicator.

As Menendez notes, registered Dems have cast more ballots—or are expected, based on the party’s modeling, to have voted more often so far—than their opponents in states like Iowa, Louisiana, West Virginia, California, Nevada, Wisconsin and Illinois. Given the grim predictions of a massive momentum gap, that’s good news. But in many of those states, the party enjoys a lead in registered voters by a sizable margin. And in most cases they’re not doing as well as they were in the last election cycle, when a vaunted get-out-the-vote operation was instrumental in President Obama’s victory.

“The early voting numbers are favorable for Democrats, but here’s the caution – they are not as favorable as in 2008,” Michael McDonald, a professor at Virginia’s George Mason University, told Reuters. For the GOP, there’s a positive trend to herald. An analysis of early-voting data in 20 states by Politico’s Molly Ball found that in 14 of 15 where voters register by party, Republicans are outpacing their share of voter registration, measured against both 2006 and 2008. But GOP brass, like the Democrats, is also trumpeting early leads that don’t mean much—like in Pennsylvania, where voters are required to furnish a reason for their early vote, resulting in low voting rates so far.

Nor is there a perfect point of comparison for these early figures. Should we compare early turnout against state-by-state party registration totals? (McDonald says no.) Against 2008, when the Democrats’ boasted a huge edge in early voting? If so, that’s a high bar for the party to clear. Stacking up the numbers against 2006 is better, according to experts, but still a small sample size. How do we account for the fact that Republicans tend to have an edge among elderly voters? Or the fact that scores of registered Democrats or registered Republicans may have been motivated to cast an early ballot simply because they’re so disgusted with their own party they couldn’t wait to side with the other guy? And could high early-voting figures depress total turnout?

“We really don’t know” how to interpret early voting, argued FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver. “Early voting is quite new in most parts of the country, and something most voters weren’t taking advantage of until quite recently. Perhaps by 2018 or 2020, we’ll have a better idea of how early voting operates and will have developed better techniques for analyzing it.” Until then, it’s best to take any analysis—and particularly press releases from either party—with a grain of salt.