Most politicos are fans of the movie The Candidate, a 1972 political drama where a U.S. Senate candidate, Bill McKay, seeks an underdog win in his first campaign. The energy and excitement builds up for months leading to a pivotal sunny Tuesday in California when everyone heads to the polls. The movie is filled with young excited volunteers rushing out to put up door hangers, check polling locations to see who’s voted, and make phone calls to those who haven’t – all parts of the traditional get out the vote efforts known in the business as G.O.T.V.
But if this campaign were a modern campaign it would also be a losing campaign.
The historic timeline, building from an announcement and debates, gaining steam with an increasing noise of political ads and a final grassroots push, just isn’t how campaigns win in a state where half of the votes are cast early.
Sure, in the fictional 1972 election Bill McKay might have won or lost some votes from overseas military personnel and those who qualified as absentee voters giving them the ability to vote from home. But those numbers were minuscule compared to the now majority of California voters vote by mail.
Barely a blip in campaigns 30 years ago, absentee voting in California now regularly accounts for half of all ballots cast, and in some counties and in some elections up to two-thirds or more. The effect of these early mail voters is even greater in low-turnout elections or single-issue ballots where most participants don’t feel a need to wait till closer to the election to make up their mind.
In the 1972 California statewide general election, just 4.72% of votes cast were done by mail, compared to over 60% in the last California statewide election. (Source: California Secretary of State)
Extremely telling is the time it takes for the first 25% of the ballots to be cast.
In the 2014 General Election, 25% of the votes were cast and processed by the registrar a week before the election. This means — when you account for a couple days in the mail — that one quarter of the ballots were cast two weekends before Election Day. Compare this to the 2008 presidential general when this 25% mark was hit the day before the Election, and to the 2000 gubernatorial election when the number of total absentees itself was less than 25%.
To see a snapshot of absentee balloting for 2010 through 2014, including a breakdown by age and ethnicity, click here for my infographic.
As campaigns are gaining sophistication, they are learning that it’s not just the presence of a time function that needs to be considered, but also how voters differ based on when they turn in their ballots.
Early voters are those who mail in their ballots on the first weekend or first week after having obtained their materials from the registrar. This type of voter is comfortable enough with the issues to make a prompt decision. These are generally older, whiter, and more partisan and conservative homeowners.
The late ballots are returned in the last week, up to Election Day. These voters are younger, poorer, politically liberal and more often Latinos and renters.
The fastest growing group among these late voters includes those who drop off their absentee ballots at the polls. These voters appreciate having a full month to make up their mind and being able to vote at home, but they also want to experience the tradition of going to the polling location and getting their little sticker.
Finally, the last group are the poll voters, the focal point of the Bill McKay campaign and all of that door knocking and phone calling G.O.T.V. activity that many campaigns are still built around. But these poll voters are a dramatically shrinking part of the electorate, and the campaign that waits until Election Day to turn out their voters is a losing campaign.
So how are the campaigns adapting?
Just like stores are bringing out the Christmas products earlier and earlier, campaigns are targeting voters for an increasing window of time.
In 1972 getting three mailers to a voter before they cast a ballot was pretty easy, but nowadays campaigns have to split the absentee voters from the poll voters and run two separate campaigns. And even among the absentee voters, campaigns use data on historic voting patterns to identify those voters who regularly return their ballots early, who mail them late, and who drop them off at the polls. This means that one arm of the campaign might already have sent out the mailers, and be focusing on G.O.T.V for by-mail voters, well before the poll-voting portion of the electorate has received their first mail piece.
The End of the October Surprise?
The increase of early voting has potentially stymied one of the worst parts of political campaigns: The October Surprise. In the past, a struggling campaign could wait until the weekend before the election and drop a massive negative hit on an opponent, leaving no time to respond before the votes are cast. One example was an attack on Paul Krekorian the weekend before his first Assembly run that dishonestly linked him and his wife to terrorism, or an attack against then-Assemblyman Jack Scott when Spanish-language TV ads the day before the 2000 State Senate election claimed that he had voted for Proposition 187.
But, if this attack is missing more than half of the voters because of the rise in absentee voting, then the impact of this surprise attack is muted. And doing the attack early enough to impact Absentees would open the campaign to the potential that the negative tactic backfires while voters are actively voting.
Ed’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is vice president of Political Data Inc., and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy and research company. Both firms provide information and strategy to Democratic, as well as Republican and independent candidates. This is the first in a series of data-driven articles examining critical California issues in 2016.