WASHINGTON - Advance voting shows positive signs for Hillary Clinton in two states that could help her lock up the presidency, North Carolina and Florida, as the election enters a critical, final stretch.
There are encouraging signs for Donald Trump in Ohio. That's a vital state for the Republican presidential nominee, but a victory there would be only one of many steps he would need to win.
The latest data, representing at least 758,000 ballots cast — and millions more requested — highlight Trump's difficult path to the White House. And these numbers may understate his problems: The figures don't yet reflect any voter response to the recording released last Friday of Trump making crude remarks about women.
Even if Trump can capture two states he's targeted — Pennsylvania and Ohio — he would need to pull off major upsets in multiple Democratic-leaning states to reach the 270 electoral votes in the state-by-state contest for the presidency. If Clinton picks up states Republicans won in 2012, Trump's task becomes harder.
In a statement, the Republican National Committee, which provides much of the get-out-the-vote effort for Trump as well as congressional candidates, said it remained confident its "significant and early investment" will put the party in a strong position.
But Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who worked on past presidential campaigns, sees the Democrats with the advantage. Madden cited the Clinton campaign's especially heavy investment in data analytics and getting supporters to vote.
"For Clinton, it may be now starting to pay its dividends," he said.
Advance voting has surged nationally as states try to boost turnout. Early voting can be done by mail or in voting booths that open before the Nov. 8 Election Day.
More than 45 million people are expected to vote early, with preliminary data compiled by The Associated Press suggesting that advance voting could reach 40 per cent of all votes nationally. While Democrats tend to do better in early voting, Republicans usually post an initial lead with mail-in ballots before Democrats surpass them when most in-person voting begins in mid- to late October.
In North Carolina, a must-win state for Trump, early voters typically make up 60 per cent of total ballots. At least 141,000 have been requested and 31,000 have been returned, according to AP data. By party, Republicans had a slight edge over Democrats in ballots returned, 38 per cent to 37 per cent, or 300 ballots. At this point in 2012, Republicans had posted a significant 2-to-1 lead, boosted by older white voters. Republican Mitt Romney narrowly won the state.
So far in 2016, white votes are down by more than one-third while the number of black voters, who tend to favour Democrats, slipped lower. In-person voting, critical for Clinton, begins in the state next Thursday.
Democrats are stepping up outreach in North Carolina and will begin launching "souls to the polls" programs on Oct. 23, taking church attendees to vote immediately after Sunday services. Popular among African-Americans, "souls to the polls" played a substantial role in boosting Democratic turnout and record shares of black voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
In Florida, a record 2.9 million people have requested ballots, or more than one-third of the total voters in 2012. Republicans are running ahead in ballot requests, 41 per cent to 38 per cent.
But that reflects a narrowing gap. Two weeks ago, Republicans led by 5 percentage points, as state Democrats stepped up efforts to boost mail-in balloting among blacks and Hispanics. In the last week, new ballot requests from Democrats outnumbered those from Republicans by nearly 2-to-1, according to data analyzed for the AP by Catalist, a Democratic firm that helped run data operations for Obama's 2008 race.
A change in Florida laws is likely partly responsible for the increase in ballot requests — those who voted in 2014 were able to automatically receive ballots this year. It's a much better initial position for Democrats compared to 2008, the most recent data available. At that time, Republicans held a much bigger lead in ballot requests, 50 per cent to 32 per cent. Obama won the state by 2.8 percentage points.
Still, Trump may be holding steady elsewhere, such as Ohio.
After a record pace for weeks, the number of ballot requests fell 2.6 per cent from a similar period in 2012. The state does not provide breakdowns by party registration, but data compiled by Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who runs the U.S. Elections Project, show bigger declines in requests in the heavily Democratic counties of Cuyahoga and Franklin.
By race, voter modeling by Catalist for the AP found the share of Ohio ballot requests by white voters was up, to 91 per cent from 89 per cent. The black share declined from 9 per cent to 7 per cent.
Early voting started a week later for Ohio in 2016 after the Supreme Court last month declined to restore the state's "Golden Week," a period when voters could register and vote at the same time. That period was popular among black voters.
AP Polling Editor Emily Swanson and AP's Election Research and Quality Control Group contributed to this report.
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