- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 4, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Heard enough from the presidential candidates? Here’s an answer: Vote now and put the election behind you.

Early voting in the presidential race begins Thursday, and in the weeks to come, millions of people in key states will cast ballots that could prove decisive on Election Day. They did in 2008, when President Obama’s margin of victory relied to a great degree on early votes cast in such crucial states as Florida, Colorado, North Carolina and Iowa.

These days, a call to vote early is a standard plea in Mr. Obama’s campaign speeches.

“Because in Iowa, you don’t have to wait till Nov. 6 to vote. You can be among the very first to vote in this election, starting Sept. 27,” Mr. Obama told supporters Saturday in Urbandale, Iowa.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney is looking to build up that early vote as well, eager to erect a better firewall than John McCain did four years ago. But early voting has favored Democrats, drawing heavily from the black community, and this year, Republican legislatures have tried to limit early voting in states such as Ohio and Florida.

If votes cast on Election Day decided the 2008 election, Mr. McCain would have won in Florida, Colorado, North Carolina and Iowa. But Mr. Obama won those states with an overwhelming early-vote advantage, gained by mobilizing not only committed voters but also nonhabitual voters with Internet ads, email and text messages and person-to-person home visits and phone calls.

This time, putting votes in the bank is even more crucial for Mr. Obama. Amid a fragile economic recovery and a persistently weak job market, every voter who decides early is a voter who can’t change his mind later if unemployment worsens.

The Romney camp is counting on four years taking their toll on Mr. Obama’s supporters, lowering their intensity and making them a harder sell. Indeed, Mr. Obama’s camp in 2008 closely monitored early-voting patterns to determine whether they were in fact expanding the look of the electorate. The early-voting patterns this time will show not so much whether Mr. Obama is changing the electorate and more whether he is mobilizing it.

“The key for Obama is getting the best votes out of their lowest-propensity voter,” Romney political director Rich Beeson said. “With an intensity gap, that’s the first problem they are going to have.”

Early voting begins in North Carolina on Thursday, just as the Democratic National Convention ends. Indiana and Kentucky are next on Sept. 17, followed by Wisconsin on Sept. 20. Contested states such as Michigan, New Hampshire and Virginia are among a dozen states that open the ballot boxes the following week, on Sept. 22.

In all, 32 states and the District of Columbia allow voters to cast early ballots, by mail or in person, without having to give a reason. Early voting has been expanding every four years, setting records in 2008, when more than 3 out of 10 votes were cast before Election Day. More than half of the ballots in Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina and Florida were cast before Election Day, with Colorado leading the pack with 78 percent of total votes cast early.

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