There goes Iowa again, always having to be first. The home of the first-in-the-nation caucuses is also the first swing state to begin early in-person voting in the presidential election.
Although votes won't be counted until November, voters can cast ballots starting Thursday at county auditors' offices. Over the next several weeks, early voting will also be offered at places like churches, college campuses and grocery stores, through an unusual Iowa law that allows for satellite voting.
Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald says he expects a good turnout at his office in Des Moines on Thursday.
"We're a few days ahead of everybody else," Fitzgerald told Iowa Public Radio, "so there's a big push for both campaigns to get their folks out, get their votes in the bank and to move on to those undecided voters."
Iowa is one of more than 30 states, along with the District of Columbia, that allows early voting. South Dakota, Idaho and Vermont have already begun in-person voting.
But Iowa is the first battleground state to head to the polls. It is crucial, despite its relatively paltry six electoral votes, because the candidates have been running virtually neck-and-neck. Recent polls, however, show a bit of growth in President Obama's numbers.
Data from the Iowa Secretary of State's office paint a mixed portrait of where Iowans stand on the candidates as voting begins. Republicans have about an 18,000-vote lead in registration among active voters. But Democrats have a substantial lead in the number of voters who have requested absentee ballots — about five times more than the GOP.
That may be due in part to a heavier push among Democrats to turn those ballots in ahead of time.
"We're definitely putting an emphasis on early voting with our supporters," says Erin Seidler, the communications director for Obama's Iowa campaign. "Everybody's busy running around — kids, school, work, Iowa weather — you never know what can happen. And voting early really is easy, and it's accessible."
Republicans, meanwhile, say their strategy has largely been to wait until this week to send out mailings urging supporters to vote early.
Tom Szold, the Republican National Committee's Iowa spokesman, says the campaign is confident that the GOP base will show up to the polls on Election Day.
But Szold says early voting is part of the strategy, too.
"It's not like Republicans are ignoring this — not at all," he says. "We do understand that it's important and it's probably becoming more important."
Both campaigns are bringing surrogates to Iowa to promote early voting on the candidates' behalf.
Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison campaigns for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Thursday afternoon in Cedar Rapids, in an event focused on encouraging women to vote early. First lady Michelle Obama will campaign for her husband at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls on Friday.
The biggest motivation for some Iowans to vote this week may be simply getting it over with. Polk County's Fitzgerald says he's received many phone calls requesting information. In this state besieged by politics since before the Jan. 3 caucuses, he says, some residents are hoping the campaigns will figure out they've voted and leave them alone.
"It seems like the phone calls have been going on for 18 to 24 months; they're almost nonstop," Fitzgerald says. "A lot of folks are figuring that if they vote early, that with the microtargeting going on, their name will come off the list."
Sarah McCammon reports for Iowa Public Radio.
Clay Masters, Pat Blank, and Dean Borg of Iowa Public Radio, and Omaha Public Radio's Katie Knapp Schubert contributed to this report
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. It's election day in Iowa, or the first of many election days. Iowa is the first swing state on the calendar to let voters cast ballots in- person for the November election. Sarah McCammon of Iowa Public Radio has this story about early voting.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: I'm standing outside the Polk County Election Office, in downtown Des Moines. It's just a little bit after 8:00 right now, and the doors recently opened. And there's already a line well out the door. Judging from buttons and stickers, it's a largely pro-Obama crowd.
LINDSEY SWAN: I'm Lindsey Swan, I'm from Des Moines, Iowa. I'm here because I believe in President Obama and the direction he's taking our country. And I'm very proud to be an American and proud to be able to vote early here in Iowa.
MCCAMMON: Swan is a 51-year-old social worker. As of today, Iowans can vote by mail, or in-person at their local county auditors' offices. Some areas will offer satellite voting at places like churches or grocery stores.
PAT HARPER: I will be voting for President Obama.
DAVE EPPERSON: Obama.
WALLY BLATNICK: I think I may have cast the first vote in Iowa for President Obama.
MCCAMMON: That's Pat Harper of Waterloo, Iowa, Dave Epperson of Council Bluffs and Wally Blatnick of Iowa City - all among the first Iowa voters to cast ballots today. There were Romney supporters too, although they were harder to find. Virginia Sourbeer of Des Moines is a retired state legislative staffer and former teacher. She showed up around lunch time because she won't be able to get to the polls on November 6. Sourbeer says she believes Romney is best suited to fix the nation's economy.
VIRGINIA SOURBEER: No, I just think that his background for one thing and his record in Massachusetts that he dealt with difficult economic times there that he will deal with the issue. Because we've had somebody who will not deal with the issue the last four years.
MCCAMMON: The Obama campaign has been pushing early voting across the country and Democrats have requested the overwhelming majority of absentee ballots in Iowa. But Republicans do have an 18,000-person lead in voter registration.
TOM SZOLD: We tend to start much later than the Democrats, that's just our strategy.
MCCAMMON: Tom Szold is the communications director for the Republican National Committee in Iowa. He says Republican officials are confident their voters will be at the polls on election day. Szold says the Romney campaign began sending out mailings promoting early voting to residents of targeted areas of the state this week.
SZOLD: It's common knowledge that the Democrats are ahead of us in this, but I mean, that's, you know, now that our mailings are going to drop, you're going to start seeing that gap closing very, very quickly.
MCCAMMON: While more than 30 states allow early voting, Iowa is the first battleground state to begin collecting ballots in-person. Recent polls show President Obama gaining some ground here. But both campaigns say they'll be fighting for votes right up to election day. Polk County auditor, Jamie Fitzgerald, says he's hearing from voters who are hearing from the candidates.
JAMIE FITZGERALD: Yeah, I think a lot of folks on the phones - one of the questions we get asked, will the campaigns quit calling me if I vote early?
MCCAMMON: The campaigns can easily find out who's already voted and Fitzgerald says if they learn you're on that list, they'll probably leave you alone. For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.