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Clinton, Obama seek early voting upper hand

Early voting in urban areas has swelled to record numbers in Texas, outpacing the high turnout in areas of the state viewed as more favorable to Hillary Clinton.
Image: US Democratic presidential candidates Senator Clinton and Senator Obama
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., each have their own early voting strategy for Texas.Matt Sullivan / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Voting on primary day is so yesterday.

"Early voting is easy voting," said 47-year-old Robin Schneider, one of more than half a million Texans who has taken advantage of a state law that permits ballots to be cast before election day in the state's hotly contested Democratic primary between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton as well as the Republican contest.

The two Democratic presidential rivals have put a premium on coaxing voters and others like her to the polls early, with success.

Which is why Bill Clinton stood on the back of a red Chevy pickup trust in El Paso recently, pointing to a nearby early voting location and asking supporters to cast a ballot for his wife.

And why Obama's speeches wouldn't be complete without him reading aloud nearby early voting locations, and urging his audience to make use of them.

Leading edge of early voting
The state makes early balloting unusually convenient for voters, setting up polling stations in parks, recreation centers, grocery stores and KMarts. Democrats have flooded the locations since early voting began Feb. 19, overwhelming county election officials unaccustomed to handling such turnout.

"Texas is on the leading edge of early voting in this country — they have a lot more locations available and are more creative about putting them in places where people actually go," said Paul Gronke, a political scientist at Oregon's Reed College who studies early voting. "Most other states make you go to county buildings and libraries. I am not familiar with any other state that makes locations as available as Texas does."

Clinton has pinned the hopes of her struggling candidacy on winning Ohio and Texas March 4, and encouraging her supporters to cast early ballots has been a pivotal part of her campaign strategy here. But data from the state's 15 biggest counties indicate Obama's supporters are also coming out in large numbers, particularly in cities like Dallas and Houston that are home to affluent, educated voters and blacks.

Clinton is ahead in Ohio, but the contest in Texas is much tighter, polls indicate.

Some 512,000 people in the state's major counties have already cast votes in the Democratic contest, more than four times the level of turnout seen in 2004. Just 173,000 have voted in the Republican primary so far.

Early voting is easy voting
The state's complicated electoral system has led both campaigns to push for early voting. The state holds both a primary next Tuesday and precinct caucuses later that evening, placing a burden on millions of voters who may not have time to show up twice in the same day to a voting location.

By contrast, early balloting has allowed people a 10-day window through Friday to vote in locations throughout their county. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., even last Saturday and Sunday.

Early voting is also a great organizing tool, giving the campaigns a ready-made list of people who have already voted. They can then contact those voters directly and encourage them to attend the caucuses.

"I wanted to get it out of the way so that if something comes up on election day, I'm set and ready to go," said Schneider after casting her ballot outside an HEB grocery store in Austin. "I definitely want to show up at my polling place Tuesday night for the caucus, but that's after work. So this gets the voting part out of the way."

Lone Star state is in play
State election officials predict that one-third to one-half of the total Democratic primary vote will be cast early.

"Texas is in play for the first time in many years, and it's encouraging a lot of people to participate. The campaigns are also really well-organized and are paying a lot of attention to them," said Scott Haywood, a spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State's office.

The state's two largest counties — Dallas and Harris, where Houston is located — are Obama's strongholds in the state. Officials estimate that early voting turnout in those places is as much as eight to 10 times higher than it was in 2004.

"We're pleased to see a strong turnout in those counties," Obama Texas spokesman Josh Earnest said. "Our supporters are very enthusiastic and eager to get out and vote for him."

Competing strategies
But Clinton's campaign officials warn not to make too many assumptions, noting that the majority of voters in both counties were women, many over the age of 50. Older women are among Clinton's only remaining demographic strongholds.

Meanwhile, Clinton's other stronghold, Hispanic voters, are casting early ballots at a rapid clip in South Texas and are projected to wait until primary day to vote in other parts of the state.

"If you factor it all in, overwhelmingly more women than men will vote early in this state," Clinton field organizer Nick Clemons said. "In terms of delegate math, we're going to hold our own."

But even that prediction is risky, based on the complicated way the state apportions its 228 delegates.

Under the turnout formula, Houston gets seven delegates and Dallas gets six while the poorer Hispanic counties that tend to favor Clinton get only three. Clinton hopes to build up delegates in these smaller counties and isolate Obama to the heavily black urban areas.

"There are only so many delegates in Harris County, no matter how big a turnout Obama produces," said Bob Stein, a political scientist at Houston's Rice University who studies voter turnout. "Clinton is working to win in smaller areas across the state where there are Hispanics and not a lot of black voters."

But Stein said Clinton needs a heavy early vote showing more than Obama, noting his voters are more independent and have tended to break later. Such was the pattern in California, where Clinton dominated early voting while Obama came on strong at the end.

The fact that Obama is doing as well as he is in early voting bodes well for him, Stein added.

"The conventional wisdom suggests yeah, it favors her. But look at what's happening in Harris County," he said.