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Early turnout defies trends

Nicholas is a Times staff writer.

Record numbers of voters across the nation are casting ballots before election day, including high proportions of Democrats and African Americans in some of the battleground states in what appears to be a promising sign for Barack Obama.

In the 32 states that allow people to vote before Nov. 4 without a special excuse, election officials report heavy turnout as the presidential campaign reaches its frenzied last days. That’s not surprising in a campaign that has received round-the-clock attention. But it also reflects the intensive efforts of campaigns competing to bank votes before election day.

In North Carolina, which hasn’t gone for a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976, almost a million people have voted, and Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1.

“We’re going to bust every record we’ve ever had,” Gary Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections, said of the state’s early-voting participation.

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A surprise is the makeup of the early voters, election experts said. In past campaign seasons, Republicans have used early voting to their advantage, mobilizing a slice of the electorate that typically skews their way.

Yet a look at voters in a handful of crucial states suggests that Obama is turning out his base in numbers that surpass those of Republican John McCain.

“Historically, we’ve seen that early voters are older, they tend to be white, have higher incomes and are better educated,” said Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

“And that group of people tends to trend Republican. Now we have a mirror image in this campaign.”

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Lloyd and Sandra Clemons, a retired couple who voted early Friday near Pittsboro in Chatham County, N.C., said they chose Obama, whom they described as an inspirational figure.

Sandra Clemons, a former municipal worker, said she was initially a Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter because she figured Obama’s candidacy would fade.

“I was afraid he wouldn’t make it and I’d be disappointed. Now I think it’s a major historic event -- just unbelievable, and very exciting,” she said.

Early voting continues in many states, so the numbers can change. But Obama seems well-positioned in several Republican-leaning states that have the potential to broaden his path to the magic number of 270 electoral votes.

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In North Carolina, early voting shows Obama’s party in the lead. Of the 930,516 people who have voted early, 56% are Democrats and 27% Republican. Blacks account for 21% of North Carolina’s registered voters but make up 28% of those who’ve voted early.

In Georgia, which hasn’t chosen a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992, African Americans are voting in disproportionately high numbers. Of the 967,210 people who’ve voted early, 35% are black, state data show. By contrast, blacks constituted only about 25% of the total that voted for president in 2004.

Iowa voted for President Bush in 2004, but the Obama campaign hopes to win the state. Early voting figures bode well for that. About 51% of the 277,909 Iowans who’ve voted early are Democrats, compared with 28% Republicans .

Stewart Iverson, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said he wasn’t unnerved by the trend. He views the state as a tossup, and says McCain has a “decent shot at winning.”

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“We’ve been through this in several election cycles,” he said. “On election day, what we’ve found is normally a greater percentage of registered Republicans vote than Democrats.”

Florida, a huge prize with 27 electoral votes, offers a mixed picture. More than 1.5 million Floridians have already cast ballots. Democrats hold a tiny advantage: 42.7% to 42.6%. Republicans now hold a 16-point edge in absentee balloting, whereas Democrats have a 23-point lead among people showing up at the voting booths.

A Florida GOP official voiced worry that the gap would grow.

“We know Florida is a battleground state, and we’ll just have to work that much harder to deliver these 27 electoral votes to John McCain -- and that will take every ounce of the grass-roots machine we’ve built up,” said the official, who asked for anonymity to speak more freely.

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Early voting is becoming more commonplace as states eager to relieve election day congestion offer new options to cast ballots in advance. Experts estimate that upward of 30% of all votes may be cast early this year. In comparison, 14% of the electorate voted early in the 2000 election.

A Gallup poll released Friday found that, of the people who’ve voted early nationwide, roughly half have supported McCain, the other half Obama.

Republicans may have been hoping for more of an edge.

In Bush’s two successful campaigns for president, he won the early vote both times, according to experts on preelection-day voting. It’s not clear the pattern will hold.

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Examining the “demographic profile of early voters in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, we’re seeing a larger percentage of Democrats than one might expect,” said George Mason University’s Michael McDonald, who specializes in voter turnout. “We’re seeing a larger share of African Americans than we would expect. These points taken as a whole do tell us indeed that the people who’ve voted so far are more likely to be Obama supporters than McCain supporters.”

In New Mexico -- another state that voted for Bush in 2004 -- Democrats account for 69% of the 55,743 people who’ve voted early; Republicans, 31%. Those figures do not include absentee ballots, which state officials said were not available.

Nevada’s two largest counties, Clark and Washoe, favor the Democrats in early voting. Nearly 172,000 people have voted, and the turnout has been 56% Democratic and 28% Republican.

In a conference call Friday, Obama campaign aides said they were encouraged.

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David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, said: “We like what we’re seeing in terms of the early vote.” He added: “We might head into the election with some margin already in the bank, which is unusual for a Democrat.”

Still, Republicans said they were confident. Election day turnout is how elections are decided, they said.

“We’re not surprised by the strong showing by Democrats. We expected them to do well,” said Brent Woodcox, spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party.

“The Obama campaign is spending a vast amount of resources to turn out every vote they can.”

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The race, he added, “will be won or lost on election day, and we’ll rack up a large total on Nov. 4.”

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

Times staff writers Doug Smith in Los Angeles and David Zucchino outside Pittsboro, N.C., contributed to this report.

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