Yesterday, NBC News ran a story that threatened to send fervent election-watchers into a downward spiral. Using data provided by TargetSmart, reporter Adam Edelman and the NBC News Data Analytics Lab said that Republicans were outpacing Democrats in early voting, which is now underway in several key states. Here is the chart they presented of the vote totals themselves, as of October 22nd at 10:12 EDT:
And here's how many Republicans have voted as opposed to Democrats:
Granted, the report acknowledges that Republicans prefer sending absentee/vote-by-mail ballots for early voting and Democrats prefer voting in person, which began yesterday in Texas and parts of Florida. But this analysis relies on incomplete and context-free data that does little to explain how the electoral landscape has changed since the last midterms in 2014.
Take for example, Tennesse. NBC and TargetSmart state that since early voting began last week, nearly 290,000 people have sent in their ballots by mail, 62% Republican, 30% Democrat, and 8% party-unaffiliated. Without context, this data is frightening, since Tennessee's Senate race between Republican Marsha Blackburn and Democrat Phil Bredesen is one of the most crucial in the country. But the numbers by themselves are meaningless without comparison to 2014, where Tennesseeans had only sent in 92,515 absentee ballots within the first few days of voting.
Muddying NBC's analysis, Chattanooga's Times Free Press doesn't even have the same numbers as NBC. According to them, the number of ballots that have been sent to the Secretary of State's office is closer to 400,000. - an uptick of more than 250% since 2014. In Hamilton County alone (Chattanooga's seat), 20,000 have already cast votes - an uptick of 300% since last time.
NBC News also does not account for the 8% of unaffiliated voters who have sent in their ballots in Tennessee. How they vote will be crucial to whether Blackburn or Bredesen becomes their next Senator. They also don't question party affiliation - many Republicans are breaking ranks this year to vote Democrat for the first time in their lives. Who's to say this might not happen in Tennessee, too?
In-Person Voting Has Begun
The numbers from the first day of in-person voting in Texas and Florida yesterday also cast aspersions on NBC's analysis.
When 2,000 Texans lined up at a polling place in Hamilton County (Houston's seat) yesterday to be among the first to cast ballots, Houston Chronicle, called it "shocking." Many of them were there to vote for Democratic Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke, who made an appearance to show his gratitude. Other reporters said that polling places in cities like Austin, Waco, and San Antonio had wait times of thirty minutes to an hour, whereas in previous election cycles they had been ghost towns.
Although 538's Nate Silver says Texas is still likely to lag behind on turnout compared to other states, these are huge developments. 60,000 people voted across Hamilton County yesterday - three times the number of people who voted on the first day of early voting in 2014.
Florida is another crucial case. Although the numbers from ballots cast by mail favor Republicans over Democrats, turnout for in-person voting is looking to make up for and possibly exceed that difference. In Miami-Dade County, the first-day turnout was three times that of 2014, from 4,000 to 15,000. Broward County, the home of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, boasted the highest turnout for the first day. All in all, more than 113,000 people voted yesterday, 44% Democrats to 40% Republicans.
This leads to the biggest problem with NBC's analysis: their totals for Democrats and Republicans who have voted so far are not based on actual numbers, but on models provided by TargetSmart. These models ignore that some of the states it encompasses, like Georgia, Montana, and Texas don't even register by party, making it harder to tell who's showing up and voting which way. TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier admited that even he disagreed with their reporting:
Taken together, all these mitigating factors undermine the credibility of NBC News's report. However, don't let these reassuring words make you complacent or assured that victory is inevitable. If Democrats are going to win this thing, we need to be canvassing, phone banking, and engaging face-to-face with people to bring them to vote, and it's never been easier to volunteer.