February 5th polls: How much will early-voting doom Obama and Romney?

It's easy to forget that Super Tuesday is in 8 days considering tomorrow's GOP primary could be more decisive than anything that can happen in a week. But it is time to look ahead at February 5th states, in particular California. Keep in mind that margins and winning areas will be particularly important in California as delegates are allocated according to complicated formulas. That said, Clinton and McCain hold very comfortable leads in all three polls released today:

  • SUSA has McCain leading 37% to 25% for Romney, with Huckabee at 14% and Giuliani at 12%. Early-voters make up 30% of voters already and have McCain up by a similar margin.
  • Among Democrats, it's Clinton up 49% to Obama's 38%. Early-voters make up 23% of the vote and 56% back Clinton.

  • The LA Times poll has comparable numbers, with McCain leading 39% to 26% against Romney and Clinton up 49% to 32% against Obama, mostly because of her 2:1 lead among women. That's some big movement on the GOP side from two weeks ago where McCain got 20% and all four major candidates were within 4%. The Democratic side is stable. Most of the poll was conducted prior to South Carolina and Kennedy's endorsement, so it does not register any bounce Obama might have gotten out of this week-end.

  • Finally, Gallup also looked at California and has McCain up 35% to 27% for Romney among registered voters and 36% to 31% among likely voters. Among Democrats, Clinton is up 47% to 35% among registered voters and 51% to 33% among likely voters. Gallup also tells us that 20% of the electorate has already voted and locked-in their preferences.
These patters of early-voting will be duplicated across the country in all states that allow for extensive absentee and early-voting programs. And they are likely to cause dramatic headaches for the Romney and Obama campaigns. Voters in states like California started voting weeks ago and about a quarter have already locked in their choice in weeks during which Clinton was way ahead and Romney was not really visible (given that he never really ran a visible national campaign and stayed low in the polls outside of IA, NH and SC until his Michigan win). That means that Romney and Obama will not only have to catch up to McCain and Clinton in the coming 8 days but make up the deficit of early-voting by having a healthy lead among those who vote on Election Day. And the difficulty of this exercise should give new ammunition to those who denounce early-voting for making the last weeks much less relevant even though most of the campaign happens then.

Turning to two other February 5th states, it is obvious that McCain and Clinton are going in with an advantage, and that Romney really needs a win tomorrow to stop McCain's march towards the nomination. In New York, first of all:

  • Gallup shows that Giuliani has completely collapsed and trails McCain widely. The AZ Senator is up 40% to 21% to Giuliani among likely voters, while Romney is at 17%. But more than half of Republican voters say they might still change their mind, underscoring how important last minute decisions often are.
  • Among Democrats, Clinton is crushing Obama 56% to 28% in her home-state, with Edwards at 11%.
And in Oklahoma, a SUSA poll:

  • McCain is ahead with 37% followed by Huckabee at 28% and Romney at 19%. Giuliani gets 6%, tied with Paul. 42% of the electorate says they might still change their mind.
  • Among Democrats, Clinton leads 44% to 27% against Edwards (who was a very very close second in 2004) with Obama at 19%.
With winner-take-all states like New York and New Jersey looking strong for McCain, Romney will have to find places to compete next week. California looks like it could be promising but that early-voting deficit will be hard to overcome. But in most of these states it is probable that the campaign hasn't fully engaged yet. And Romney should have an opening in places like this if he wins tomorrow. 65% of the electorate describes itself as conservative, and Romney has to blast his anti-McCain message out non-stop for a week in places he wants to be competitive. His recognition deficit has not yet been overcome, but he has the money to fight that.

Similarly, much of Obama's deficits in states like California and Oklahoma are only the reflection of his trailing nationally, thus among voters who don't fully pay attention or go for the better-known Clinton. But Obama's problem is naturally that Super Tuesday is national and Obama better hope that developments like Kennedy's endorsement give him a big enough national megaphone.

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