Early voting poses an under-the-radar challenge to Iowa and New Hampshire's long-prized status as the first in the nation to decide presidential preferences.
Voters in a number of the states that are circling the Feb. 5 presidential primary date - including California, Oregon and Montana - could begin casting ballots as early as Jan. 5, nine days before the Iowa caucuses.
In at least 10 of the possible Feb. 5 primary states, estimates are that more than 30 percent of voters cast their ballot before Election Day in November 2004, some in person at county elections offices, and some via mail-in ballots.
Political analysts say the early voting trends in those states could force presidential candidates to recalibrate their strategies and resources in an already crowded primary season.
Paul Gronke, a political science professor at Oregon's Reed College and the director of the Early Voting Information Center there, said the early voting trends combined with the Feb. 5 primaries are a boon for the "well-funded, well-known campaign. You have to begin your mobilization efforts so much earlier - you simply cannot ignore those absentee voters."
Watching early voter trends
With minds being made up earlier, experts say, there's less chance that a late-breaking event, like a surprisingly strong finish in Iowa or New Hampshire, can influence voters elsewhere.
Early voting can also work in a candidate's favor, particularly during primaries, which tend to attract the most motivated voters. Fervent supporters can be nudged to vote early, Gronke said, freeing up a candidate to target swing voters and undecideds in a campaign's waning days, without worry about alienating loyalists.
With the primary calendar so in flux, campaigns and the two major parties are keeping a close eye on the early voting trends.
"Clearly the moves will force candidates, as always, to make decisions about where they will spend their time and money," said Karen Finney, communications director for the Democratic National Committee.
Move toward early voting
Early voting, which political scientists say is on the rise, is most common in the West. Oregon, for example, is the only state in the country that has moved entirely to a vote-by-mail system; in the 2004 presidential election, 85 percent of voters in the state had sent in their ballot before Election Day.
The state's primary is currently scheduled for May, but lawmakers are seriously considering changing the date to early February.
"It's a contest that will already have been decided long before the May primary," said Democratic state Rep. Diane Rosenbaum at a hearing on the issue Wednesday. "I don't see that there is much to be gained by continuing to go with that later date."
In Texas, where 32 percent of the votes came in before Election Day in 2004 and ballots would go out on Jan. 19, 2008, "no-excuse" absentee balloting is in place. Voters can ask for an absentee ballot, without providing any explanation or reason for their request.
And in Montana, voters can cast their ballot early in person, at any satellite location or at the county elections offices. Thirty-two percent of the state's voters cast their ballots before Election Day in 2004; early voting would open on Jan. 5 if the state moves to a Feb. 5 primary.
Experts said that though early voting might change a candidate's on-the-ground plan, the results will come from Iowa and New Hampshire, and results are what everyone will be waiting for.
"The value of the early primaries is to show some strength in results," said John Fortier, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., who has studied early and absentee voting trends. "If you don't show electoral strength in the early states, you won't do well on February 5th."