If early voting numbers reflect party enthusiasm, then Maine Democrats are more energized about the election than their Republican rivals.

That’s the argument Democrats are making about their decisive advantage in accepted absentee ballots, an early voting method that political parties use to measure – and tout – support for their candidates and causes. As of Monday, registered Democrats had returned 42 percent of the total 112,322 accepted absentee ballots compared to 28 percent by registered Republicans and 27 percent by unenrolled voters.

Thursday was the deadline for Mainers to request an absentee ballot. Those ballots can be submitted until the polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Early voting numbers have become increasingly prevalent in political campaigns that use the figures to generate buzz about their message, or in some cases, to counter unfavorable poll numbers. The 2012 presidential election has been peppered with reports about early voting tallies from swing states like Ohio and Florida.

In Maine, the Democratic party has long held the advantage in early voting, an edge the party attributes to its ground game of door-to-door activism.

However, in 2010, Republicans closed the gap in a significant way as the party captured a wave of voter disenchantment over the economy. During the governor’s race, the Maine Republican Party frequently broadcast its edge in absentee figures. When the results were in, the party had control of the Legislature and the Blaine House for the first time in decades.

This year the Republican Party is dismissing its lagging absentee ballot totals. David Sorensen, said that it’s unfair to compare 2012 to 2010 because this is a presidential election.

“Republicans are more old school when it comes to voting,” Sorensen said. “We like to vote in person.”

Asked why a significant number of Republicans preferred voting absentee in 2010, Sorensen said, “I think there’s something different about voting in person during a presidential year. Our voters like to go to the polls and cast their ballots.”

He added, “Maybe Democrats aren’t sentimental that way.”

Despite their advantage in early voting numbers, Democrats are off the pace from the 2008 presidential election during which 231,000 voters cast absentee ballots. As of Oct. 29, Democratic voters had taken out 107,000 ballots.

The gap would appear to feed speculation among national pollsters that Democrats are hampered by dampened enthusiasm, in particular for President Obama. Obama enjoyed rock star-like popularity in 2007, particularly among young voters. However, after nearly four years as president and a slogging economic recovery, Obama has struggled to resurrect the energy from four years ago.

Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, isn’t convinced that’s the case in Maine. He said the Oct. 29 early numbers don’t capture the last-minute frenzy of absentee requests that typically accompanies the final days of absentee balloting.

“We think we’re still on pace to reach the 2008 numbers,” he said.

Grant is also encouraged by the Oct. 29 early voting data.

“It tells me that the (enthusiasm gap) isn’t happening,” he said. “It tells me that to the extent that it was happening our people have gotten over it. They’re fully motivated. The campaigns are very clarifying, especially at the top of the ticket in the presidential race. There’s a clear choice here and (Republican) Mitt Romney is totally unacceptable.”

Grant also attributes Democrats’ advantage to enthusiasm for the legislative races which the party hopes will result in taking control of the State House. Grant has repeatedly said that winning both chambers is attainable, and that winning one is critical.

“The things that are driving people to the polls this year are the presidential race and the state Legislature,” Grant said. “. . . People really support the president, they want to see him back. People really don’t like what’s going on in the Legislature under (Gov.) Paul LePage. With the support of like-minded people, they want a change.”

Despite a disadvantage in early voting tallies, Republicans say they’re confident about the election. Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster said Tuesday that the party would drive Election Day turnout in some surprising places to unseat incumbent Democrats.

Sorensen, meanwhile, said he was encouraged by the high number of absentee ballots requested by unenrolled voters. He said it was good news that unenrolled voters had cast ballots early and “before being exposed to some misleading attacks by outside Democratic groups.”

“They’ll avoid being misled by this avalanche of outside Democratic money by stealth PACs,” Sorensen said.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: stevemistler

This story has been corrected to note that the last presidential election was in 2008.

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