Early voting puts Iowa back in the spotlight

Vice President Joe Biden arrives for a campaign event with President Obama at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, September 7, 2012. SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

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Vice President Joe Biden arrives for a campaign event with President Obama at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, September 7, 2012.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages
This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

It certainly won't match the level of national attention garnered before the first-in-the-nation caucuses last January, but Iowa is about to reprise its status as an early barometer of the presidential race.

On Thursday, Iowa will become the first swing state to begin early voting. Once it has been gradually rolled out nationwide, early voting is expected to be even more consequential than was the case four years ago -- perhaps all but foretelling the winner of the presidential race before Election Day comes around on Nov. 6.

For months, staffers and volunteers at the Obama campaign's more than five dozen Iowa field office have worked relentlessly to encourage Democrats to request absentee ballots, which any registered voter in the state is allowed to fill out and submit before the polls open officially in six weeks.

As of Monday, registered Democrats had requested 109,709 such ballots in Iowa, while Republicans there had requested less than one-fifth of that total (20,458).

Iowa Democrats are pleased with their efforts thus far.

"Many people on the Obama campaign staff never left after '07," said Michael Hunt, communications director of the state's Democratic Party, which is working in conjunction with the Obama campaign on the early voting effort. "So we've been extremely fortunate to have an institutional memory in Iowa that goes back to the days when he was Sen. Obama."

In contrast, interviews with several Iowa Republicans revealed a commonly held acceptance that Mitt Romney has fallen behind the president in the state, but also a shared belief that the Democrats' big lead in early voting was to be expected and is not any reason for panic.

"My sense is that Romney is down right now -- maybe five or six points -- but the early voting has always been a strong Democrat process," said longtime Iowa GOP fundraiser and activist Becky Beach. "It doesn't worry me that they have an advantage, as we made some real gains in voter registration this year."

With just 14 Iowa field offices, the Romney campaign and aligned Republican committees have only a fraction of the staff on the ground that their Democratic opponents have at their disposal.

With that deficit in mind, the Romney camp has waited until ballots actually become available to make its early voting push, declining to try to match the Obama campaign's efforts over the summer.

The first of about 10 scheduled mailings with information on how to request early ballots will arrive in the mailboxes of Iowa Republicans by the end of this week, at which time the Romney campaign expects a significant uptick in its early voting activity.

  • Scott Conroy On Twitter»

    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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