The Aaron Harber Show

The Election Has Begun is Almost Over!
October 22, 2006
By Aaron Harber

Part 1: Staying Away From The Polls Doesn’t Mean Not Voting

Traditionally, political campaigns sought to “peak” on Election Day - that usually the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November (trivia note: yes, if Tuesday is the first day of November, Election Day is the 8th - not the first - except in odd-numbered years in Colorado when the election always is the first Tuesday, even if it is November 1st, thanks to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights).

These days, however, the election stretches out over almost a full month. With the General Election scheduled for November 7th, Early Voting begins 15 days earlier - on October 23rd. At that time, voters can go to their County Clerk’s offices and other locations to cast their ballots.

But the real start of voting already occurred. Registered voters began sending in Absentee Ballot applications days, and even months weeks before the October 6th date at which Absentee Ballots could be mailed out to voters by County Clerks (or, in the case of the City & County of Denver, the Election Commission).

With voters being concerned about controversies related to the security of voting machines and with the daunting challenge of a lengthy ballot - with a record-tying number of initiatives and referenda - hundreds of thousands of voters already have decided to vote absentee. Some votes were cast as early as October 9th and thousands more are pouring in to election offices every day. It is possible that more than half of Colorado voters will cast absentee ballots before dawn on Election Day.

Absentee ballots today form a version of balloting by mail because they no longer require any reason for requesting an absentee ballot. In the past, a voter had to give a reason for not being able to go to the polls. Today, no reason is required.

With Republicans leading the State in registered voters (1,066,956 or 36% of the total) followed by unaffiliated voters (999,552 - 34%), Democrats are bringing up the rear (896,861 - 30%) out of a total of 2,975,845. That gives the Republicans a six-point or 170,095 person edge in registered voters over Democrats in statewide races. This explains why only relatively conservative Democrats win statewide races in Colorado.

Part 2: What Do Absentee and Early Voting It Mean?

With absentee voting resulting in a third of a million votes already being cast out of an expected total of under 1.8 million, additional absentee balloting along with Early Voting at polling places established by County Clerks could push that total to nearly a million votes.

If this happens, candidates and campaigns seeking to “peak” on Election Day will have miscalculated because half the votes of Coloradans already will have been cast. As a result, campaigns have changed their strategies and recognize the need to peak a month before Election Day and “plateau” at that peak level for a full month. This isn’t easy to do.

It also is costly. It means spending money to “peak” and then, instead of having one day to worry about, it means financing a campaign at its zenith for another full month. Statewide candidates need to have mailings going out every week for several weeks and they need to be advertising on television for the same period of time. The net effect has been to make statewide campaign extraordinarily expensive - now costing millions of dollars for the highest profile races.

One good side effect is that “Gotcha Politics” - the tendency of campaigns to hit opponents hard at the end of a campaign with negative advertising, often characterized by unsubstantiated or distorted personal attacks - becomes less effective. In the past, a candidate could be attacked in the final few days of a campaign and have little ability to respond. Today, such attacks have less impact if half the votes already have been cast.

Absentee and Early Voting, however, also make it difficult for a candidate trailing his or her opponent to make a “comeback.” If a quarter or a third of the votes in an election already have been cast, that forces a candidate to convince a much higher percentage of voters to win a race.

For example, if a candidate were trailing by almost 7 points and 21% of the voters were undecided in his or her race, he or she would need two out of three undecided voters in order to win the race. But, if half the votes already were cast before Election Day, in order to win the same election, the trailing candidate would need to get nine out of ten remaining undecided voters to support him or her on Election Day - a near impossibility.

Part 3: Locking In Votes May Mean Candidates Changing Positions

If citizens cast their ballots well in advance of Election Day (e.g., two to four weeks) via absentee voting and Early Voting, not only will election results have a tendency to get “locked in” but such voting patterns have the potential to change campaign strategy. This means “comebacks” will be tough to pull off.

The smart candidates and ballot issue contestants will identify their supporters months in advance of an election, have them apply for absentee ballots, and will make certain these supporters get their votes into their local County Clerk up to a month before Election Day. With these votes “in the bank,” campaigns then can concentrate on those voters who they still have a chance to convince.

Hence, another effect of absentee and Early Voting is that it could free candidates to change positions to secure those undecided or swayable voters. For example, if a conservative candidate feels he or she has locked in the majority of hardcore support he or she is going to get, suddenly he or she can take a different path without losing votes from his or her base because most of that base already will have cast its votes - and cannot take them back. The same applies to a liberal candidate who can become more conservative as Election Day approaches.

In the past, while candidates tended to “move to the political center” in order to win races, they often had to backtrack in the event they were losing the support of a significant portion of their political base (i.e., members of their own party). When candidates are forced to go back to their base, however, their actions have the potential to alienate the voters they need to gain a majority - the undecided and the swayable segments of the electorate. With absentee and Early Voting, the well-organized campaign can eliminate the likelihood this will be a problem.

The 2006 Election is demonstrating this in a number of prominent races. Bob Beauprez’s gubernatorial bid often appears to be refocused on getting Republicans to support the Republican nominee. With his base solidly in hand, Democratic nominee Bill Ritter has promoted very general themes which are non-partisan and non-offensive in nature. Republican Rick O’Donnell’s congressional race, on the other hand, has long made appeals to non-Republican voters. Democrat Ed Perlmutter’s themes focus on the need to for change in Washington with an emphasis on what he perceives as the errors of the Bush Administration - a popular theme in the 7th Congressional District - broad appeals beyond his base.

As an illustration of the need to “peak” for the entire one-month voting period, all four candidates are unlikely to make any major changes in campaign themes or strategies which have a significant impact. That is, even if they make such changes, they are likely to have far less impact because so many people already have made up their minds or even cast their ballots. And for that reason, most pundits argue, those two races are over.

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