North Carolina's early voting period begins at 8 a.m. today in Mecklenburg County and elsewhere across the state, with Democrats hoping to build on their 2008 pre-Election Day performance and Republicans trying to turn it to their advantage.
Early voting starts today at 350 sites across the state, with days and times varying from location.
Mecklenburg's first site to open is the Hal Marshall Annex on North Tryon Street, where voting begins at 8 a.m.
Four years ago Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry North Carolina in 32 years. And he won it before Election Day.
Early voters that year gave Obama a 305,000-vote cushion heading into Election Day, helping him squeeze out a narrow 14,000-vote victory in the state.
Every indication to me is that the Republicans learned their lesson, political science professor Michael Bitzer of Catawba College said Wednesday. Republicans looked at what happened in 08 and said, This is a new game we have to play.
Both sides are ready.
On Tuesday, first lady Michelle Obama touted early voting during a visit to the Triangle, even checking out a campaign RV dubbed the Early Vote Express.
On Thursday morning, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum will rally early voters in Charlotte, Hickory and Gastonia. National GOP Chairman Reince Preibus will hold similar rallies in Greensboro and Winston-Salem.
Obama jumped out to a huge lead in 2008, and in order for them to have any chance in North Carolina, theyre going to have to replicate that, said Rick Wiley, political director for the Republican National Committee. Theyre going to have a rude awakening (and) a really hard time re-creating the magic.
Democrats say theyre not worried.
They will always be playing catch-up to what our organization has been able to do, said Cameron French, North Carolina spokesman for the Obama campaign. Weve been in the state four years; weve really been able to build for this moment.
Early voting has risen steadily in popularity since it began in North Carolina in 2000.
In 2004, Bitzer said, 31 percent of all ballots cast in the state were early votes. That rose to 61 percent in 2008. This year, he expects it to go even higher.
Two-thirds of votes early
My prediction is we will probably see somewhere around two-thirds of all the votes this year cast before Election Day, he said.
In 2008, Democrats were the masters of early voting.
Not only did Obama win 56 percent of the states early vote over Republican John McCain, but Democrats also took advantage of the law allowing first-time voters to register at early-vote sites.
Of the 105,000 first-time voters who registered at the polls in 2008, 54,000 were Democrats and 26,000 were Republicans. Most of the rest were unaffiliated.
All that helped Democrats overcome an Election Day deluge.
McCain won 58 percent of the vote on Election Day, while Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory took 55 percent against Democrat Bev Perdue. Perdues early votes helped her to an ultimate 3-point win over McCrory.
Turning out the vote
In 2010, it was Republicans who took advantage of early votes.
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, for example, created a site called EarlyVoteNC.com, where supporters pledged to vote early. He won almost 55 percent of the early vote. In 2008, Democrat Kay Hagan won 57 percent of the early vote in beating Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
Both sides point to one indicator of interest in 2012: the request for absentee ballots.
Republican voters have requested nearly 87,000 absentee ballots, according to the state board of elections. Democrats have requested 47,000, while unaffiliated voters have asked for 36,000.
Republicans point to their advantage. Democrats say theyve closed the gap from 2008.
Starting Thursday, both sides will turn their efforts from persuading voters to turning them out. Early voting runs through Nov. 3.
Every day between now and Nov. 3 is Election Day, French said.
Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.