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Vote early, vote often

Our blogger finds that enthusiastic voters are already casting their ballots, perhaps to Barack Obam

By Jonn Elledge

Keep it to yourself. But for all the talk of October surprises and last minute reversals, there’s an outside chance that someone’s already won this thing.

Although the election is still two weeks away, much of the US has already been voting for a month. More than thirty states allow you to cast your ballot weeks before election day. The vast majority of these don’t expect you to give any reason for it.

And thousands have jumped at the chance. Voters in Florida, who thought they were cleverly beating the election day queues, found themselves at the back of a five hour line. Barack Obama has taken to using rallies to get his supporters all fired up, before pointing out that they can vote

So far, those voters seem to be leaning heavily towards the Democrats: a SurveyUSA poll of five key swing states found that, among the 10% or so of voters who had voted already, Obama was ahead by as much as 30%.

That gives him a 3% head start on McCain before most of the electorate have even voted – quite a cushion against last minute surprises. Given the razor thin majorities which swung the last two elections, that could make it impossible for McCain to catch up.

That said, anyone who motivated enough to turn up at a polling station three weeks before election day is unlikely to be the kind of floating voter that decide elections. Paul Gronke, of the non-partisan Early Voting Information Center, reckons that early voters are likely to be enthusiastic, ideological – and partisan. Those poll numbers are less a measure of Obama’s lead than of the enthusiasm of his supporters.

That doesn’t mean they won’t have any impact on the outcome, though. Gronke compares the situation to a rigged race – taking place in the dark. “You think you’re both at the starting line, but in fact one candidate is a few steps ahead. But it’s worse than that – because unless you are well organised you don’t know how far ahead they are.”

This gives a sizeable advantage to the better resourced and run campaign. With public records, they can track who’s voted and have a fair idea of how many have gone their way. They can see where they’re meeting expectations, and where they need more work. And they can use that information to target their advertising and campaign events. “That is the huge impact of early voting,” says Gronke. “But it requires money and bodies on the ground.”

With its record breaking fundraising and vast number of campaign offices, that could give a hefty advantage to Barack Obama.

None of this makes the Democrat candidate impregnable, of course. But it does mean that McCain has a lot of work to do before election day – maybe more than he knows.