During the election season, voters are bombarded with poll after poll on who is leading. Now with early voting underway, Americans will be hearing additional poll numbers on "early voting voter turnout."
Over the course of the next several weeks, many eligible voters will cast their ballot early. They can do so during their 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.
Pollsters from both parties will be reading the tea leaves of the early voter turnout, but are the early votes a guarantee of a win? If history is of any guide, the answer is no. So how should voters read those tea leaves?
CNBC asked voting turnout specialist Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, what he will be looking for during the early voting polls. McDonald is no stranger to offering such guidance and expertise. He has worked for a national exit poll organization and has consulted to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Here are edited excerpts from that interview.
Who is the early voter?
There are two types of early voters, what I call situational and behavioral early voters.
Situational early voters are people who must vote early because they are away from their homes, like our military deployed abroad, or are too ill to make it to the polls.
Behavioral early voters are those who decide to vote early, if their state allows it. The earliest early voters tend to be highly informed about politics and the candidates and they cast their vote when they feel comfortable in their choice. We can see this the metrics — the first early voters tend to be older and more frequently registered with a political party. As the early vote season progresses, especially the last week before the election, we'll see more young people and people who do not register with a party in the mix, that is, people who are not as tied to the parties and tend to have less information about politics.
Voter mobilization is key for the early vote. What should Americans know about each party when it comes to early voting?
The early voting period provides campaigns with a longer period to make contacts with people to encourage them to vote. There is an important asymmetry between Democrats and Republicans.
Typically, Republicans tend to be older, more highly educated, and wealthier. They fit the profile of a likely voter, and an early voter. Republicans have thus felt that they do not need to invest as heavily as Democrats in voter registration and mobilization efforts, as they believe their voters will take care of themselves.
The Democrats have built more sophisticated voter targeting operations and do more physical contact due to the nature of their coalition of young people, who also as a consequence of the changing face of the nation, tend to be minorities. These efforts are effective and have been shown in numerous studies to increase voter turnout. The [Republican National Committee] has taken notice of the Democrats' efforts and have been investing more into voter mobilization. Republicans have fallen down more than once in the race for voter mobilization, but it appears that Republicans started getting their legs underneath themselves in some key 2014 Senate races. Republicans still need to catch up to the Democrats, but at least they are out of the starting block.