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Elections Expert Breaks Down Early Voting Data

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

With just a week to go, more than 27 million people have already cast their vote by mail and early in-person voting. That's higher than the number of people who voted early by this same time four years ago - so no surprise that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been campaigning in states with early voting, states like Florida and Nevada. And Hillary Clinton released an ad starring President Obama encouraging people to go to the polls before Election Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know how you beat LeBron James one on one? Get there 45 minutes early. Then it's one on none.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You try telling the president of the United States that there is no such thing as one on none.

OBAMA: Probably my favorite thing to do early is voting. Why wait until November 8? When you vote early, you can choose that day and the time that works for your schedule. And by the way, you can probably vote before Joe Biden does.

CORNISH: To break down what those 27 million early votes mean, I spoke with Michael McDonald. He's the founder of the Elections Project and an associate professor at the University of Florida. I asked him what we know so far about early voters in the battleground states.

MICHAEL MCDONALD: We're seeing unevenness in early voting. In some states, we're seeing strength for Clinton. In some places, we're seeing strength for Trump. Let's start with the states that are strong for Trump at the moment. These are states primarily in the Midwest - Iowa and Ohio. We've seen throughout the early voting period a weakness among Democrats. They don't seem to be as engaged as they did in 2012. These are also states - Iowa and Ohio - that we've seen difficulty for Clinton in the polling numbers.

When we look at some of the states where Clinton is doing well like Virginia - although it's not a traditional early voting state. It does have excuse-required absentee voting. It just has very permissive early voting. And so at a state like Virginia, we're seeing really high levels if not record levels of early voting coming out of northern Virginia, which is where there are a lot of Democrats in the state, and maybe for this reason among others with the polling numbers, which also show that Clinton has a strong lead in Virginia, that the Trump campaign pulled out of Virginia.

CORNISH: What can you tell us demographically, right? Do we know if there are, say, more women casting votes early or things like that?

MCDONALD: It appears that there are more women who are voting early. We have three states that we can look at that data from publicly - Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. We are seeing an uptick of women who are voting in these states. It's a small number. You know, it's only about a percentage point or so. But if that's - you know, if the election becomes very close, we might think that that might be decisive in the election outcome in some of these states.

But among another group that is also a very important part of the Democratic coalition, African-Americans, we're seeing lower levels of engagement. So maybe that - those two things will cancel out as well when we get to Election Day.

CORNISH: Do we know why more people are voting early?

MCDONALD: I wish I knew (laughter). It's certainly an interesting phenomenon to see across the country. If I were to speculate, the voters have a lot of information about the candidates already. They've been following this election very closely. If anything, we can see by - through the debates that viewership was up at record levels and that people are engaged. They're informed.

It may be that the reason we're seeing such level - high levels of engagement in early voting is that people just want the election to be over. They want to cast their ballot, and they want to move on with their lives.

CORNISH: Michael McDonald is associate professor at the University of Florida and the founder of the Elections Project. Thank you for speaking with us.

MCDONALD: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.