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Absentee, early votes big part of Senate campaign strategy in Iowa

Democrats hope to limit traditional Republican advantages

(file photo)
(file photo)

DAVENPORT — In 2010, more than 400,000 Iowa voters who were part of the record-breaking effort to elect Barack Obama two years earlier decided they wouldn’t go to the polls.

More than four out of 10 of those missing voters were Democrats. Only about one in 10 were Republicans.

It was a harsh example of what has long been a fundamental truth of midterm elections: Republican and GOP-leaning voters are more likely to turn out than Democrats and those on the left.

It’s true not just in Iowa but across the country. And it’s a truth Democrats have to deal with every midterm election.

In Iowa, where there are high-profile races for the U.S. Senate and for governor, Democrats have been trying to make up for that by hitting the streets since this spring to try to sign up Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters.

A big part of their mission: Get those people signed up for absentee ballots.

For the past decade, absentee and early voting has worked its way into the DNA of Iowa’s electorate — and it’s figured into the Democrats’ electoral strategy.

In 2012, 43 percent of the voters cast their ballots before Election Day, a record in Iowa.

Those early votes were heavily tilted in the Democrats’ favor, and they played a huge role in Obama’s re-election victory over Republican Mitt Romney.

As the traditional election season kicks off this Labor Day weekend, Democrats hope it will be the same for the top of their ticket this November. But Republicans, having said they learned their lesson two years earlier, aren’t ceding the early voting field. They’re pledging a vigorous ramped up effort they say will open some eyes.

In the end, it may be a pivotal factor who wins on Nov. 4.

“Our goal is to take away that (Republican midterm) advantage by increasing turnout among those who tend to sit home in off years,” said Jeff Link, a top strategist for Rep. Bruce Braley, who is seeking to win Iowa’s open Senate seat.

It’s not just Democrats they’re seeking, but left-leaning independents, too. And committing those voters to early ballots is key.

Link said with turnout expected at about 1.1 million this year, there’s probably a list of about 300,000 voters to be targeted.

So far, it’s too early to get a picture from public data how the absentee picture is shaking out. Absentee ballots won’t go out for nearly another month. But there are early indicators that Democrats are outgunning the Republicans.

In Polk County, nearly 7,200 absentee requests had been turned in by Democratic voters and only 776 from Republicans. About 2,300 came from independents. In Black Hawk County, 1,650 absentee requests from Democrats had been turned in, while only 95 came from Republicans. About 650 came from independents.

Other large counties that were spot-checked said they hadn’t yet broken down their requests yet.

In Scott County, more than 4,300 had requested absentee ballots, though there was no breakdown by party preference.

Republicans know the Democrats hit the streets earlier. But they say they’re going to go after those early votes hard, too, even if their efforts are more concentrated in the last couple months of the election cycle.

Republican Party of Iowa chairman Jeff Kaufmann pledges a “record-setting year” in terms of resources and effort put into early- and get-out-the vote efforts for a midterm.

“The Republican Party of 2014 understands that we have to put forth a much greater effort than we have in the past. And, no to be too bold, but that will happen this year,” he said.

He points to the party’s rejuvenated finances and the 13 field offices it’s establishing as proof of its dedication.

Typically, Republicans haven’t gone in for brick and mortar offices the way the Democrats have.

“They are going to be the epicenter of our early voting and get out the vote effort,” he said, which he added will see a “dramatic ramping up” in September.

Longtime GOP strategist Dave Kochel acknowledged the advantage Democrats had in 2012 in early and absentee voting. But he says this year is different for the Democrats, too.

“They don’t have Barack Obama and the most expensive campaign in history at the top of the ticket,” says Kochel, who also is advising state senator Joni Ernst, who’s running against Braley for the Senate seat.

Kochel also believes Republicans have an enthusiasm advantage, something that’s echoed in national polls.

Republicans add they have some new wrinkles to their early voting plans, though they won’t divulge them yet.

Democrats in Iowa aren’t willing to bow to the notion their volunteers aren’t psyched up.

Christina Freundlich, a state party spokeswoman, says the party’s volunteers belie that idea. And she says the party believes its typical early vote advantage is accentuated this year, given that Braley had no primary and, as a result, they could hit the streets early.

In addition, they say their analytics program has improved what already is a highly honed program.

With so many eyes on the U.S. Senate race, they also dismiss the notion they won’t have the resources to get to the polls the people they signed up to ask for ballots over the spring and summer.

“This year, we have one of the strongest coordinated campaigns we’ve ever had,” Freundlich said.

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