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What Early Vote Totals Say About Election Outcome

LITTLE ROCK, AR - NOVEMBER 03: People line up for early voting outside of the Pulaski County Regional Building on November 3, 2014 in Little Rock, Arkansas. With one day to go before election day that has several very tight races for local and national office, hundreds of voters lined up for early voting. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

While Election Day is Tuesday, more than 17 million people nationwide have already voted. They went to the polls or mailed in their ballots -- and political operatives as well as analysts are already pouring over the data to get a glimpse into the outcome of the campaigns.

Early voting or the ability to cast an absentee ballot for no reason is available in all but 14 states, expanding the scope of Election Day from just one day until more than 30 in some places.

And with each election season, early voting is becoming more prevalent as the practice spreads – even as some state legislatures have cut back on the length and time of early voting. In the last non-presidential election, 19 million people voted early of 90 million people who cast ballots. In the 2012 election, more than 32 million people voted early, about one-fourth of the total number of voters.

While all the early vote tallies haven’t been released, several states are being closely watched because of the close state-wide races.

For instance, in Iowa, an estimated 32 percent of voters have voted early. Of those, registered Democrats have cast nearly 41 percent of those ballots compared to Republican’s 39 percent, according to the United States Election Project.

And in North Carolina, the scenario is similar. Nearly 48 percent of the early votes cast were by Democrats compared to 32 from Republicans.

Finally in Colorado, a place where Democrats don’t have the early vote advantage, 33 percent of Democrats have cast ballots as of Monday morning compared to 41 percent of Republicans.

Looking at those numbers seem like it would be pretty straight forward. Assuming that the Democrats voted for the Democratic candidate and the same with Republicans, Democrats are ahead in Iowa and North Carolina but down in Colorado.

But there’s a lot more to the story than that. And that’s where the campaigns come in. They crunch the numbers, compare then with the metrics they know they have to reach to win, and put on a good face.

For instance, in Iowa, Democratic candidate Bruce Braley’s campaign insists that those numbers are good for Braley. In a memo released to the press, Braley campaign manager Sarah Benzing wrote, “Our models show that Bruce has a significant lead among independents who have voted already and those whose ballots we expect to come back.”

But there’s always two sides to the story – even in math. Alex Conant, a spokesperson for Republican Joni Ernst, said that although Republicans are behind on the early vote numbers, they “look really good.” He said that Republicans are more likely to vote on Election Day, which means Democrats need to “run up the early vote margins, which they’ve failed to do.”

And in North Carolina: "The early vote data in North Carolina makes it clear that Sen. Kay Hagan is positioned to win. The electorate so far has more women and is more racially diverse than the 2010 electorate, and features a strong Democratic turnout advantage,” Ben Ray, spokesperson for Forward North Carolina, said.

The Republicans have a different take: Michael Steel, House Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman working in North Carolina to elect Republican Thom Tillis, said the early vote numbers are better for Republicans than they were in 2012 when Mitt Romney won the state. “We have run an excellent ground game and we’ve put ourselves in a position to win,” Steel said.

So who’s right?

It’s hard to say.

“Democrats have spun it the way they want and the Republicans have spun it the way they want,” Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at Cook Political report, said.

It’s difficult to compare 2014 to 2012 because the voter base in presidential years is much different. The turnout is about 15 percent higher and more diverse.

A comparison to the last nonpresidential election – 2010 – is also difficult because the same senate incumbent or challenger wasn’t running then. For instance, in Iowa, that state hasn’t had a competitive Senate race in decades. In most cases it’s an apples to oranges type of comparison.

Duffy said “too much is read” into early voting totals.

For the campaigns, however, it is a valuable tool. These professional operations know the exact number of votes they need to win, down to each neighborhood block. Those are stats campaigns rarely share with the public or the press. But the early vote totals provide the campaigns with valuable insight into where they sit heading into Election Day – no matter how they publicly spin it.

While these numbers are a tool, they are no way a predictor into who will win on Election Day.

Regardless, as Republican strategist Brian Walsh said, either way, “You’d rather be ahead than behind” heading into Election Day.