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November 1, 2008 10:05 p.m.

As you can tell we’re spending a lot of time these days churning through all the latest and almost endless number of polls. And the big question I’ve been trying to get a handle on is just what conclusions we can draw, if any, from the big percentage of Americans who’ve already voted. CBS adds some interesting new data in a poll out tonight that shows the state of the race among likely voters and among those who’ve actually voted already.

According to the CBS poll, for all likely voters (that includes those who’ve already voted plus likelies) it’s Obama 54%, McCain 41%.

Among those who’ve already voted, it’s Obama 57%, McCain 38%. And that number is not inconsistent with numbers coming out of a lot of the early voting states.

CBS says that “about one in five voters” have voted early. I’m sure I’m just missing it, but I can’t find it in the polling document. Meanwhile, Gallup says the number is now 27%, which I find astonishing.

Now, there are two ways of looking at these numbers. One possibility is that the big advantage Democrats are having among early voters is just a matter of regular Dems being so hyped up to get out to vote for Obama that they’re disproportionately going early. That, or some variant of that argument, is the one being advanced by the McCain campaign. On the other hand, perhaps this is the actual 2008 electorate showing up at the polls and showing a big swing toward the Democrats.

If we follow the CBS numbers one thing we can rule out is that the earlies are all the new voters. According to the CBS poll, the percentage of early voters who are first time voters is only slightly higher than that of all likely voters.

The number that jumps out at me though is the spread between the numbers for the early voters in 2008 and who they say they voted for in 2004. For 2008, the earlies report going for Obama 57% to 38%. The same group says they went for Kerry in 2004 by a 45% to 40% margin. (Presumably a substantial number of people declined to answer the question.) So it is probably disproportionately 2004 Kerry voters (figuring in the uncertainty of the non-response rate) who are showing up to vote early. But among the early voting group there’s been a significant swing toward the Democratic ticket.

One major caveat. The sample size for the early voters is a relatively small subset of the whole poll. So there’s a substantially higher margin of error. But the big tilt toward the Dems is consistent with other recent state polls.

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