FUQUAY-VARINA, N.C. (AP) — Campaign activists have accelerated their hunt for votes for President Barack Obama, Republican Mitt Romney and other candidates in North Carolina on the eve of in-person early voting, redoubling their emphasis on personal contact with likely voters.
Voters can cast absentee ballots at more than 350 locations in all 100 counties starting Thursday. The pressure upon campaigns during the early voting period is enormous in a battleground state such as North Carolina, causing them to ramp up get-out-the-vote efforts.
"Every single day of early voting is Election Day," Hanna Lyons, an Obama volunteer, said inside a former hardware store that now serves as a campaign office in the Raleigh suburb of Fuquay-Varina. "Whatever push we feel in November, we feel that daily in early voting."
More than 2.4 million people cast in-person early votes in 2008, or 55 percent of all ballots cast in the general election. Many attribute early voting by Democrats to Obama's 14,000-vote win over Republican John McCain, the first for a Democrat in North Carolina in 32 years.
"It's not too much to say that literally every vote counts, and both campaigns have got to realize that the more votes they bank, the better their chance on Election Day," Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer said Wednesday.
First lady Michelle Obama spoke about early voting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Tuesday and inspected an RV called the "Early Vote Express" that began touring the state Wednesday. Another Obama campaign charter bus emphasizing early voting has been traveling the state this week with guests like Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and other GOP politicians were expected to hold similar early-voting events Thursday. Romney's eldest son, Tagg, was expected to knock on doors for his dad in Raleigh on Wednesday afternoon.
But much of the get-out-the-vote work falls to Romney supporters such as Ed Stiles and Rhian Merwald, who canvassed a neighborhood Tuesday in Garner, 10 miles north of Fuquay-Varina.
As residents walked their dogs or puttered around in golf carts, Merwald and Stiles asked people who answered door bells whether they could count on them supporting Romney, gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory and the rest of the Republican ticket. They left campaign literature and lists of early voting sites. People who weren't home received door knob hangers listing Republican-backed candidates.
Door-to-door visits work because it "reinforces that people are not alone in their sense of frustration and that their values are being completely ignored," Stiles said.
Republicans historically have emphasized mail-in absentee votes, and GOP voters again have turned them in at a rate higher than their registration totals so far in 2012, according to State Board of Elections. But while roughly 225,000 people voted by mail in 2008, Democrats swamped early voting sites four years ago and ended up casting 560,000 more ballots than Republicans before Election Day, according to board data.
Republican National Committee political director Rick Wiley said activists will focus on "flushing" — a term to describe driving GOP-leaning voters living around early voting sites to the polls.
"I don't believe the Democratic margins are going to be nearly as high as they were in 2008 in those opening days of early voting," Wiley said as volunteers made phone calls to likely voters at the state GOP headquarters in Raleigh.
North Carolina Obama campaign spokesman Cameron French said the campaign is "very confident in our ability to turn out voters in the early vote time period" given the four years the organization has been working in the state.
That organization includes 54 campaign offices, including the one in Fuquay-Varina.
A wall calendar in the basement had Thursday's date highlighted with green marker. Volunteers sat at a folding table and called supporters to remind them of early voting. Retired government employee John Partridge, of Holly Springs, is volunteering for the first time because he said Obama needs four more years in office to straighten out long-term problems that couldn't be fixed in one term.
"If the people don't get out to vote, then we're liable to be in that ditch again, and this time we will be covered with dirt," he said.
State elections director Gary Bartlett said he believes the in-person early vote will meet or exceed 2008 totals. Bitzer predicts two-thirds of the ballots could be cast by mail or in person before Election Day. There are now nearly 6.6 million registered voters, 300,000 more compared to November 2008.
"There are going to be long lines at early voting sites and long lines on Election Day," Bartlett said.