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How voter apathy on Trump, Clinton could affect early balloting

All attention is focused on Nov. 8, but election 2016 really gets underway shortly.

Early voting is set to start in coming weeks in such key states as North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia, and in other states after.

As with those trekking to the polls in November, early voters will be confronted with selecting one of the most disliked presidential candidates in recent history. With the mudslinging overshadowing issues, policy experts say the challenge for voters this election is to sift through the promises and rhetoric and drill to the reality of the candidate's policies.

"Here in Arizona our polls open October 12th," said Matt Roberts, communications director for the Arizona secretary of state, who handles elections. "At the end of the first two weeks, 80 percent of all of the state's votes are in."

Mail in Ballot, voting
Paul J. Richards | AFP | Getty Images

Arizona's early voter participation is not out of the ordinary. According to Associated Press 2012 election data, early voting from those six states will make up between 50 to 75 percent of total ballots cast in those states for the general election.

Such high percentages make the impact of a potential "October surprise," a political phrase for late breaking news on a candidate that could impact voters in the last weeks before Election Day, less great, with so many votes locked in earlier.

A total of 37 states and the District of Columbia offer eligible voters the ability to cast a ballot before Election Day. Voters can cast their ballots either during a state's designated early voting period by mail, physically voting at an early voting site or by requesting an absentee ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Thirteen states do not allow early voting unless there is an approved excuse.

Source: NCSL: National Conference of State Legislatures

Early voting is becoming increasingly important as many states are making it easier to cast ballots before Election Day, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "Roughly a third of ballots will be cast before Election Day, so the potential for some late development really changing the race could be lessened by the fact that so many are voting, in some cases, well in advance of the end of the campaign."

Kondik explained while Hillary Clinton clearly has an organizational edge over Donald Trump, the Democratic electorate may need more prodding than the Republican base. "Republican voters are generally older and whiter, and ... more reliable, while Democratic voters tend to be younger and more diverse, and not as reliable. Still, Trump is hoping to expand turnout amongst less reliable white voters, and if he had more money invested in a turnout machine he might have a better opportunity to do that and get his voters to the polls earlier."

The percentage of voters who participate in early voting is expected to go up, according to the analysis of the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. In the 2012 election, a quarter of the votes cast was by early ballot. (The Census Bureau said the gap between 1980 and 1992 is because the early voting question was not asked in all years).

Once the early polls open you will see media reports and "experts" trying to read the tea leaves of the polls predicting a winner but there are many pitfalls, said voting turnout specialist Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"There are a lot of nuances in early balloting and you will see a lot of ebb and flows," said McDonald, who runs the United States Election Project. "The early part of balloting is by mail-in votes which Republican early voters prefer so you will see Trump supporters saying the media polls are wrong and Trump is winning. But then you'll have the physical polls open (which) the Democrats prefer and Clinton will then catch up. Bottom line — you will get the clearest picture a week before the election on who is ahead in the general election."

The lack of clarity has a least one CEO in no rush to vote early. Mike Jackson, chairman, and CEO of AutoNation, said he will not be casting his vote early because the campaign policies and rhetoric have left him somewhere between depressed and despondent.

"The one word that sums up this election is never. Voters say they will never vote for Clinton, or they will never vote for Trump. There is little enthusiasm as to who they will vote for." Jackson said. "Based on his temperament, I will never vote for Trump. Down ticket, I will split my vote which will be mainly Republican. As to who I vote for president, well if this was the Clintons of the '90s then I would say I would vote Hillary. But based on her rhetoric, just how far left has she gone? So while I've decided who I will NEVER vote for, ... it's still to be determined who I will vote for."

Barry Jackson, managing director of The Lindsey Group who advises clients on the impact of existing and potential policies on business, told CNBC the campaigns for Clinton and Trump are the least substantive campaigns he has ever seen in addressing fiscal policy, and it's unknown if it will have an impact on early voting.

"There is no simple answer on that — enthusiasm versus ground game versus unknown actions of the anti-Hillary crowd on the Dem side and the 'never Trump' crowd on GOP side."

Neither the Trump or Clinton campaigns responded back to CNBC's request for a comment.

UPDATED: This story was updated to include the Census Bureau's explanation for the gap between 1980 and 1992 for early voting.