Movement in Mid-September Polls is of Increasing Significance

The 2016 presidential race is tightening, closing from a 5{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} advantage for Hillary Clinton on August 30th to a 1.5{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} advantage today (9/16) according to the average of national polls. But, hey it’s a snapshot in time and still a long slog to Election Day, right?

Well, increasingly, no.

You see, our voting process has been changing, slowly, over time. Through the growth and prevalence of “No-excuse” early, absentee, and all-mail voting more than four in ten 2016 voters will likely cast their vote before Election Day. In fact, for some, the 2016 “Election Day,” as it were, has already come and gone. And, as more states offer early voting options, the trend will continue, altering how we interpret horse-race polling in American elections. Consider this:

  1. In the 2014 elections, 43 states allow early voting in some capacity. Of those, 34 states did not require any special requirements to vote early.
  2. A 2014 Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE)—funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts—surveyed more than 10,000 registered voters nationwide.

According to the SPAE survey, forty-one percent (41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of voters said they cast ballots before Election Day.

  • 16{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} said they voted early in person or in-person absentee.
  • 25{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} said they voted by mail.

In 15 states, the majority of votes were cast before Election Day in 2014. This was the case in 14 states in 2012 and 11 states in 2008. And, as the table below from the SPAE poll shows, voters report taking the most convenient path available to the ballot box. Suggesting the more opportunities to vote early, the more early votes we’ll likely get.

Table III

The slow and steady rise of voters casting ballots before Election Day will almost certainly eclipse 40{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of the electorate again in 2016. It was 37{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in 2008 and 39{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in 2012, according to the SPAE.

For some voters in North Carolina, “Election Day” 2016 has already started, and those voters will soon be joined by voters in other states.

  • The first rounds of early ballots were dropped in the mail in North Carolina Friday, September 9.
  • Next Friday, September 23, voters in Minnesota will be the first with a chance to cast their ballots early, at in-person locations around the state. Polls open in South Dakota and Michigan the following day.
  • By the end of September, voters in seven states will be able to cast ballots in person.
  • By mid-October, every state will be collecting absentee ballots and a total of 16 states will allow early voting including AZ, MI, NM, and OH.
  • No wonder venture capitalists in Silicon Valley are considering upending the news reporting mores by projecting vote totals all-day on Election Day instead of waiting until polls close on the west coast.

Bottom Line
This cycle is different in many ways. But, with absentee, mail, and early voting available to more voters than ever before, the narrowing in the polling we see today may be more relevant an indicator than ever about what will happen on “Election Day.”

Public Opinion Strategies