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
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