Early voters could tip scales in NC
Photo by Cristina Barletta and story by Lucinda Shen for The Daily Tar Heel
Although election day is 14 days away, the battle to drive North Carolina residents to the polls is already underway for both major political parties.
After President Barack Obama narrowly won the traditionally Republican-leaning state by about 14,000 votes in 2008, the GOP has pledged to boost turnout this election cycle.
According to a party memo, Republicans have made seven times more phone calls and 121 times more door knocks in North Carolina than in 2008.
The efforts have paid off.
Compared to a similar time period before the 2008 election, more than 45,000 more registered Republicans have voted early this year.
Republicans have an advantage with mail-in ballots, submitting about 21,000 more than Democrats as of Sunday.
But Democrats have dominated in-person early voting, outpacing Republicans by more than 100,000 ballots.
Steven Greene, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said Republicans traditionally push the mail-in ballot, while early in-person voting has historically helped boost the Democratic vote. Although Obama received less votes on election day in 2008, early votes still carried him through.
Business professionals who travel frequently — and tend to lean Republican — often need to mail in ballots, said Johnnie McLean, deputy director of the N.C. State Board of Elections.
In-person early voting depends more on campaigns’ get-out-the-vote efforts, Greene said.
“Early voting creates a potential for the side with more organization on the ground,” he said. “In N.C., that is the Obama campaign.”
But the enthusiasm that carried Obama to victory in 2008, especially among young voters, has dwindled, said Lindsay Rietkerk, co-founder of Tar Heels for Obama.
“I’ve registered more unaffiliated people this year. More people are waiting to see what Romney says and decide later down the road,” she said.
Austin Gilmore, president of UNC’s Young Democrats, said he expects early voting turnout to exceed 2008 levels.
Compared to a similar time period in 2008, 17 days before the election, about 120,000 more state residents have voted early this year.
Mail-in ballots are uncommon on campus, but early in-person voting has been a focal point among some student political groups.
Tar Heels for Obama has been focused on registering students for early voting because it will help the campaign, Rietkerk said.
UNC students tend to vote early rather than on election day because the on-campus early voting site, Rams Head Dining Hall, is more convenient, Gilmore said.
“If a UNC student hasn’t voted early, they’re not going to vote on Election Day,” he said. “It’s much less of a hassle for students we register to vote early.”
Early voting hasn’t been the focus for UNC’s College Republicans, said Garrett Jacobs, chairman of the group.
“We just want more turnout and to get everyone registered,” he said.
But because of a sputtering economic recovery and stubbornly high unemployment, campus Republican groups across the state are focused on 20- to 30 year-old voters, said Greg Steele, chairman of the N.C. Federation of College Republicans.
“Everybody was excited for Obama in 2008. But you go out now, and you can’t find a job to pay your loans, and the rising price of health care, and you realize that we need change and it’s time for change,” he said.
According to the latest survey by Public Policy Polling, a left-leaning polling firm based in Raleigh, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney leads Obama 49 percent to 47 percent in North Carolina, a virtual tie within the margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Both campaigns are trying to appeal to a small sliver of undecided voters, Greene said, adding that he thinks most voters have already chosen their candidate.
“Anybody participating in early voting has clearly made up their mind already and not many voters at all will be changing their minds in the last couple weeks of the campaign,” he said.