Columbus/Chicago: Democrats are casting early votes with greater intensity in North Carolina and Colorado, while Republicans appear to have the early edge in Ohio and Iowa. There’s a surge of early balloting in Florida, another crucial swing state, though it’s difficult to say yet whether the advantage goes to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

Those are some of the trends emerging so far from data being compiled after more than 15 million Americans have already cast their ballots, either by mail or in person, according to Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who runs the US Elections Project that updates the statistics daily.

While changes in state procedures make comparing numbers this year with 2012 problematic—and early voting is just starting in some places—the initial results from battleground states such as North Carolina and Colorado are not encouraging for Trump, the Republican nominee, because he’ll need to carry those states to get 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.

The numbers from Iowa and Ohio, states President Barack Obama carried in 2012, provide potentially troubling signs for Democrats and correspond with polls showing tight races there, even as Clinton expands her lead in national surveys, McDonald said.

Midwestern slump

“These seem to be pieces of a puzzle that fit together that suggest that decreased interest among Democrats is depressing Clinton’s poll numbers in these Midwestern states,’’ he said.

Clinton, the Democratic nominee, is scheduled to hold two rallies in Iowa Friday to encourage her supporters to vote early, and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, heads to Ohio on Saturday for the first weekend of early voting there. He’ll go to North Carolina on Sunday.

Early voting is underway in roughly three dozen states, including many of the battlegrounds that will decide the presidential election. As much as 40% of this year’s vote is expected to be cast before the 8 November election, a proportion that grows every four years as more states and voters embrace the convenience.

Early voting was a key element of Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 after his campaign banked votes to overcome what traditionally has been a Republican advantage with election day turnout. Clinton’s campaign has placed greater emphasis on early voting than Trump’s, pushing it relentlessly during her rallies and having surrogates fan out across the battleground states to promote the practice.

Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, has said he’s fairly certain that more Americans are going to vote early this year than in any other election in history, and that races in states such as Nevada, North Carolina and Florida, which together account for 50 electoral votes, could be decided before election day.

Battleground states

Clinton’s campaign is taking encouragement from the results so far in states such as North Carolina and Florida, where she holds slight leads over Trump in a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls.

Despite a superior get-out-the-vote operation, the Democrat’s numbers in Iowa and Ohio are lagging from 2012, the data shows. Total absentee ballot requests in the Hawkeye State through Thursday are down 10% from the same point in the 2012 election, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.

While ballot requests by Republicans are almost the same as four years ago, requests from Democrats are off by 12%. Returned ballots from Republicans are down 6% and those from Democrats 13%. Clinton trails Trump by 3.7 percentage points in the state, a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows.

Ohio votes

In Ohio, a state with 18 electoral votes and where Trump leads Clinton by 1.1 percentage points in an average of surveys, there have been 204,000 fewer requests for absentee ballots statewide as of 21 October, compared with the same point in 2012, according to the secretary of state’s office.

In Cuyahoga County, the state’s most populous and a Democratic stronghold where Obama topped Republican Mitt Romney by more than 256,000 votes in 2012, total absentee requests as of Tuesday were down by 18% from the same point in 2012, according to data from the county board of elections. Requests by Democrats were down 37% from four years ago, and returned ballots from Democrats were off by 40%.

Republican ballot requests were running 2% higher than they were in 2012, suggesting that Republicans are on pace to do as well as they did four years ago while Democrats are struggling to generate the same excitement for Clinton as Obama, said Rob Frost, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party.

“I think it’s just a lack of enthusiasm for the Democratic nominee,’’ Frost said.

Fewer days

Clinton’s campaign says a comparison with early voting results from 2016 with four years ago is misleading because the Republican-dominated state government eliminated five days of early voting in the state after the 2012 election. They expect the numbers to pick up starting this weekend.

“I feel really good about where we are,’’ said Chris Wyant, Ohio director for the Clinton campaign. “I think we have the resources with the team and with the volunteers.’’

Initial results in large Ohio counties are more encouraging for Clinton. In Franklin County, returned ballots from Democrats were 25% higher as of Tuesday and Republican requests 6% lower, with polls showing educated voters and suburban women cool to Trump.

In Florida, McDonald said it’s difficult to compare this year’s early voting with what happened in 2012 because the state’s laws and procedures have changed significantly to encourage early voting.

“Democrats at this point are outperforming where they were in 2012, but there is a lot of uncertainty with that number,’’ he said.

In-person, early voting didn’t start until Monday in Florida. A week from now, McDonald said, it will be easier to start to assess the voting patterns there.

Florida returns

As of Thursday, his data showed Republicans had returned 41% of the early vote so far, compared to 40.5% for Democrats. Independents and those registered with other parties had returned the remaining 18.5%.

McDonald said Democrats are under-performing in North Carolina when compared to 2012, but that decline is artificial because fewer polling places were open than four year ago. “That block is going to be pulled away now,’’ he said.

Campaigning with Clinton in North Carolina on Thursday, first lady Michelle Obama invoked America’s civil rights era as she encouraged her audience at Wake Forest University to cast early ballots.

“I want you to remember that folks marched and protested for our right to vote," she said. “They endured beatings and jail time. They sacrificed their lives for this right.’’

Early voting in Nevada “looks similar to 2012, if not slightly better for the Democrats,’’ McDonald said. “Republicans have to do much better with the early vote there.’’

Clark County, which accounted for more than two-thirds of the state’s total vote in 2012, had recorded a total of 283,915 early and absentee votes through Wednesday, according to data from the Nevada secretary of state.

Democrats had returned 45% of those ballots, while Republicans were responsible for 36% of them and other party voters represented 19%. Those numbers are almost identical to the first full week of early voting in 2012, when Obama ultimately won the state by 6.6 percentage points.

“That one is going to be very difficult for Trump to flip,’’ McDonald said of Nevada.

The Trump campaign said that if Clinton isn’t matching Obama’s early voting numbers in the battleground states, then they will be able to catch her because of enthusiasm on election day.

Trump is also getting help from outside groups, including the American Renewal Project, which is trying to spur turnout from conservative Christians. The organization is spending more than $5 million on get-out-the-vote efforts in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri, Iowa and Virginia, said David Lane, who leads the group. Bloomberg

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