Republicans started slow but are making up ground.
Bernard L. Fraga and Jonathan Robinson | November 1, 2020
By Saturday night, 91 million Americans had already voted in the 2020 elections. Several states are approaching or even exceeding the total number of voters they had in 2016. Spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, concerns about the U.S. Postal Service and recent court rulings that could limit which ballots get counted, and record increases in both mail and early in-person voting mean that it’s difficult to compare the pre-election day vote this year to those in past elections.
As early voting kicked off, it looked like more Democrats were turning out than Republicans. But in most key battleground states, that trend has now shifted to favor Republicans, even as a newly mobilized, more diverse electorate is making an impact.
Here’s how we know who already voted
Using data from Catalist, a Democratic data vendor that aggregates and models demographic traits from state voter registration lists, we tracked some of the demographic and political characteristics of those who voted on or before Oct. 20. We focused on 11 key 2020 battleground states: Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas, Ohio and Iowa. By Oct. 20, state election officials in these 11 states had already processed 15 million ballots. We then compared the traits of this group of early voters to those who voted between Oct. 21 and Friday, the most recent date for which early voting information was available.
Starting with partisan differences, we can confirm predictions that Democrats were more likely to turn out than Republicans, at least at the start of early voting. Using modeled partisanship information that incorporates data on voters’ party registration, race, age and official precinct-level election returns, among many factors, Catalist produced a 0-100 score for nearly every voter, gauging their likelihood of supporting Democrats in a Democrat vs. Republican race. These models are based largely on historical trends and are not designed to be exactly predictive of the dynamics in the presidential or any other specific race.
In the 11 battlegrounds, the number of early voters who were likely to support Democrats was 54 percent, versus 45 percent who were predicted to vote for Republicans. In some states Democrats had an even larger advantage, the data show. In Iowa and Michigan, likely Democrats made up 58 percent of early voters, while in Pennsylvania, 70 percent of the early vote before Oct. 20 was from voters Catalist predicted would support Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Texas stands out as the one battleground state where likely Republican voters turned out at higher rates than likely Democrats in the first week of early voting: Republicans were 52 percent of early voters.
Republicans are catching up in the early vote
What about early voting in the past 10 days? Overall and in each battleground state, Republicans started to make gains on Democrats. In fact, in the 11 battleground states we examine, likely Republicans made up 50 percent of these more recent votes vs. 49 percent for voters predicted to support the Democrats.
In Iowa, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada, Texas and Wisconsin, Republicans make up more than 50 percent of recent mail ballots received and early in-person voters. About half of the early vote has come in since Oct. 20, so it appears that Republicans are catching up with Democrats even before Election Day when — thanks in part to President Trump’s rhetoric attacking mail ballots — the vote should skew disproportionately Republican.
A diverse group of ‘new’ voters is emerging
One big question about early voting is how many of these voters would have turned out to vote anyway, vs. “new” voters who didn’t participate in the last presidential election. In the 11 battleground states, we find at least 6.8 million early voters didn’t vote in 2016 even though they were old enough to do so. In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, in fact, the Democratic advantage in “new” early voters exceeds Trump’s overall vote margin in those states in 2016.
The racial/ethnic composition of the early voting population so far also points to a more diverse electorate — beyond what analysts might expect to see as a result of demographic shifts. Non-Hispanic Whites made up 71 percent of early voters as of Oct. 30 in our battleground states, but they were only 62 percent of early voters who could have voted in 2016 but didn’t. If anything, this trend seems to be accelerating: More and more non-White voters are turning out early, making up for increases from White Republicans that drive the growth in likely Republican early voting overall.
Across the 11 hotly contested states we examine, over 1 million Black voters, 1 million Latino voters, and 345,000 Asian American early voters who didn’t vote in 2016 (but were old enough to do so) have already voted this year. In Georgia, nearly one-third of the state’s newly mobilized voters are Black, translating to over 260,000 Black voters who stayed home in 2016. That said, about the same number of White registrants predicted to be Republicans have already voted in Georgia as well.
Again, it’s important to interpret early voting data with caution. Given the polarization regarding early voting, it’s possible that the population voting early has more Biden voters than Catalist’s models suggest, and that the Election Day turnout will tilt even more heavily toward Trump. However, the data on the votes that are in so far indicate that the election is far from a foregone conclusion.