Early Ohio Numbers Promising for Romney

Published November 1, 2012

American Enterprise Institute

UPDATE (11/01/2012): 

McDonald’s site has updated their Ohio early voting numbers, so I conducted a re-examination to see if the pattern I discovered still holds.  It does.  There are now 23 counties in which the percentage of the 2008/2012 early voting ratio equals or exceeds 80 percent.  McCain carried 17 of them, and the six Obama carried are still those in the eastern, blue collar part of the state.  Cincinnati exurban counties Brown and Warren now report their early votes equal 99 and 93 percent, respectively, of the 2008 early vote percentage.

 Large, big margin Obama counties remain at the bottom of the early voting ratio.  Summit (Akron), Lucas (Toledo), Cuyahoga (Cleveland) and Franklin (Columbus) are all near the bottom of this analysis, with between 67 and 69 percent of the 2008 early vote percentage already cast in 2012. 

Barack Obama is clearly winning the early vote in Ohio. But careful analysis of the actual numbers so far suggest very good news for Mitt Romney.

The Romney campaign claims the president is merely banking votes he would have received on Election Day anyway, so his early lead isn’t very important. They say their early voting strategy relies on targeting low-voting-propensity Romney supporters for early voting and leaving the others to turn out on Election Day. In other words, they claim Obama’s effort is merely harvesting votes while theirs is creating votes.

This approach makes sense, but it’s hard to prove it’s working without inside campaign information. I think I’ve found a way to do that, and my research shows the Romney effort might be paying off.

To do this, I looked at data from the George Mason University’s United States Election Project. Under the direction of elections scholar Prof. Michael McDonald, the project collects all the publicly available data on the progress of early voting in one place. The project also collects the early voting information from 2008 and provides data on how much of the share of the final turnout came from early voting in 2008 and how much of that turnout has already been cast in 2012.

I hypothesized that if the Romney campaign’s effort is working, the share of the total 2008 early vote that has already been cast should be higher in strong Romney counties than in strong Obama counties. That’s because if the Romney effort works, total turnout in those counties should be up in 2012, the bulk of that coming from the low-voting-propensity supporters who the campaign is asking to cast early ballots.

Through last Friday, that hypothesis is clearly correct:

McDonald’s site reports county-level early voting data from 53 of Ohio’s 88 counties, including all of the state’s largest. Across the state, 57.6 of the 2008 early voting turnout totals had already been cast in 2012. But the percentages are much higher in strong Romney counties than in strong Obama counties.

Twenty-two counties report that early voting in 2012 is already equal or greater than two-thirds the level in 2008. McCain carried sixteen of those, usually with high margins. Obama got more than 55% of the vote in only two of the remaining six, Ashtabula and Trumbull. All of those six are either in coal country or in a corridor from the Pennsylvania border through Canton that the Romney campaign is also targeting.

The numbers are particularly strong for Romney in the southeastern coal country on or near the Ohio River. From Scioto county in the south to Columbiana county in the north, early voting shares range from a low of 63.5% in Monroe to 82.7% in Columbiana. (Athens County, an Obama stronghold because of Ohio University, touches the Ohio River- its early voting share is only 57.4%). To compare, the early voting shares in the largest and strongest Obama counties (Cuyahoga, Lucas, Franklin, Summit, and Lorain) never top 61.0% (Cuyahoga).

Exceptionally strong numbers can also be found in Republican counties in the northwest in the Dayton, Lima, and Toledo media markets. Early voting shares there average in the high sixties, touching as high as 87.5% in Champaign County.

If anything, these numbers underestimate Romney’s strength in early voting because most of the counties not reporting early voting numbers are strongly Republican. McCain carried thirty-two of the thirty-five counties without county-level early voting statistics available on McDonald’s website, and the three carried by Obama are classic Ohio swing counties. The thirty-two McCain counties include two of the four Cincinnati suburban counties, the three biggest Republican counties in the Cleveland media market, and other large, strong GOP counties in the Dayton and Columbus markets.

The data from the two Cincy suburban counties that are available are also good news for Mitt. Exurban Warren and Brown counties report huge early voting compared to 2008- 78.7% of the ’08 level in Warren (McCain carried it with 67%) and a whopping 83.2% in Brown (McCain 61%).

This data is already a few days old: Perhaps more recent updates will change the story. But going into last weekend, Romney’s ground game looks like it was hiking turnout among its supporters better than Obama’s, an edge that could prove crucial if the race there is really a tie, as Sunday’s respected Ohio News poll showed.

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