Their enthusiasm reflected in post boxes stuffed with mail-in ballots and by hours-long queues at voting sites across the country, by early Sunday almost 60 million Americans had cast a vote in the presidential election, even as the candidates scrambled to deliver their closing message more than a week before election day, 3 November.
The vast numbers of early voters in the most consequential election in generations is fuelling what promises to be record-shattering turnout. Not since 1908 have more than 65% of eligible US voters actually exercised that right.
Behind the eye-popping headline figures lie clues to why voters are so engaged, so early. Democrats hold a sizeable advantage in the early returns. The reason, analysts believe, is simply Donald Trump, and by extension his handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has infected 8.5 million people and killed 224,000.
“The pandemic is part of it, particularly for older voters,” said Dr Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “I’m pushing 70 myself, and it has to be a part of your calculations, we’re kind of vulnerable.
“But to me, that doesn’t explain the lines. People really have bought into the understanding that if this isn’t the most important election we’ve ever had, it’s one of several. People are determined to express themselves and we all know why: Donald Trump. That includes his base: the cult is going to support the cult leader. But there are more, maybe quite a bit more, who want to end this nightmare. And that’s the way people put it. If you don’t like the word I’m sorry – that’s just the way it is.”
More than one third of the votes already returned come from the three most populous states, California, Texas and Florida, according to the US Elections project, an independent data analysis by the University of Florida.
California is staunchly Democrat, and its 55 electoral college votes are all but a lock for former vice-president Joe Biden. The race for the 38 votes in Texas is closer, but leaning strongly Republican.
That leaves the swing state of Florida and its 29 electoral college votes as a glittering prize. So far, from 5.3m mail-in and in-person votes recorded, representing almost 40% of 14 million registered voters, Democrats hold an advantage of more than 7%, or around 400,000 votes.
“It is our most mega, mega state,” Sabato said. “I like to put it that way, and there’s no way practically for Trump to get elected without Florida.”
The president voted in Florida on Saturday.
“If he loses there it will be obvious he’s going to lose,” Sabato said. “If Biden loses Florida, though, it is not the end for him. He has quite a number of other paths. [But] the problem with losing Florida is it is an indication that you’re likely not to do well in other states – we’re talking about Georgia, North Carolina, even parts of the midwest.”
The Democrats’ lead in Florida appears to be amplified nationally, at least in the 19 states that release party affiliations with their statistics. In those states, registered Democrats have sent in more than 13m votes to Republicans’ 7.4m, with 6m votes from minor or no party affiliates making up the remainder.
Across all states, the University of Florida reports, votes cast early amount to more than 42% of those from the entire 2016 election. In some places the figure is even higher, such as Hays county, Texas, where 73,277 early votes are several hundred more than the total four years ago.
Sabato cautioned Republicans not to rely on the tradition of Democrats’ early voting advantages being wiped out when their own supporters turn out on election day.
Trump “sure can win in the swing states”, he said, “Trump people who weren’t registered or didn’t vote the last time, they have spent four years identifying them. That’s been the hidden campaign that people haven’t talked about.
“But you’re taking a tremendous chance when you put all your chips on the election day vote. Suppose there’s a hurricane barreling toward Florida. Almost certainly there will be really bad weather in at least a couple of swing states, you know, lots of things happen in life, and maybe the spike up in coronavirus will keep a lot of those older Republicans away on the day.”
Michael McDonald, a professor of political science who maintains the University of Florida database, told the Guardian’s Fight to Vote project extraordinarily brisk early voting had handed Democrats a clear advantage, noting that the party’s supporters had not only submitted significantly larger numbers of ballot requests, but were also returning them at a higher rate than Republicans.
Like Sabato, however, McDonald also urged caution.
“The irony here is Democrats are actually doing Republicans a favour,” he said. “It should benefit Republicans who are trying to vote on election day that the Democrats have done them this favour of not standing in line in front of them.”