RALEIGH — Bombarded for months by campaign ads and mailers, North Carolina voters didn’t wait long to make their voices heard this election.
The first day of early voting easily surpassed the 2008 election with about 120,000 voters enduring long lines at many locations to cast ballots Thursday.
Pota Vallas, 104, cast her ballot for President Barack Obama near noon at the Talley Student Center at N.C. State University. She has voted in every election since emigrating from Greece in 1924. She remembered voting for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“She knows how important it is to vote, and she’s never forgotten that,” said Stephanie Goslen, Vallas’ granddaughter.
Aimee Sanders, a freshman, said she picked Mitt Romney for president and Pat McCrory for governor, but she split in a couple of down-ballot races.
“I’m excited to be able to vote, and it’s definitely important to know about who you’re voting for,” she said. Romney and McCrory will be “the change we need to fix the economy, and that’s the biggest problem right now.”
State election officials said this year’s first-day turnout surpassed the 117,277 who voted in 2008 just after 4:40 p.m. With many polls remaining open until 6 p.m. or later, the final tally was only expected to grow. As many as 7 in 10 voters could cast ballots before Election Day.
Even more than four years ago, North Carolina sits in the national spotlight this year as one of eight swing states that could decide the outcome of the presidential election.
The state’s voters are being inundated with campaign messages as the candidates and outside groups spend tens of millions of dollars to run television commercials and mail fliers. Throw into the mix a contested race for an open governor’s seat and three of the most closely watched congressional races in the nation, and the total cost only rises.
“Every day between now and Nov. 3 is Election Day,” said Cameron French, an Obama campaign spokesman.
Parties hold rallies
Democrats and Republicans held rallies with big political names to help fuel voter interest.
A vinyl-wrapped bus stamped with President Barack Obama’s logo carried Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to NCSU for a rally at the brickyard. “We began our grass-roots outreach efforts way back in the beginning of the 2008 campaign, and we never left North Carolina,” she said.
U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, told supporters to help get everyone who has registered to the polls.
“This is within our reach,” he said. “We know it’s tight, we know it’s tough, and we know we’ve got to reach out. … So we’re going to be pulling out the stops.”
From Raleigh, the Democrats continued the statewide bus tour in the eastern part of the state, and Republicans replaced them in the university’s brickyard for their own rally just hours later. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus led the event. He said Republicans will win North Carolina and other swing states if supporters make calls, knock on doors, and hit the ground every day through the election.
“If this is really about liberty and freedom, and you’re with us on this, … then take the next three-and-a-half weeks and try to win each day,” he said.
In Charlotte, more than 70 local Republicans and other supporters gathered at the GOP campaign office, where former presidential hopeful Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania touted Mitt Romney’s momentum from the presidential debates.
Obama won more early votes in 2008 than John McCain in North Carolina, but Santorum told the crowd they could “rewrite that narrative” as he urged them to “vote now, and don’t wait.”
Early voting on the rise
Early voting has become a vital battleground in the campaign.
Four years ago, Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry North Carolina in 32 years. And he won it before Election Day. Early voters that year gave Obama a 305,000-vote cushion heading into the final day of the election, helping him squeeze out a narrow 14,000-vote victory in the state.
“Every indication to me is that the Republicans learned their lesson,” political science professor Michael Bitzer of Catawba College said Wednesday. “Republicans looked at what happened in ’08 … and said, ‘This is a new game we have to play.’ ”
Early voting has risen steadily in popularity since it began in North Carolina in 2000, rising from 31 percent of all ballots in 2004 to 61 percent in 2008.
“My prediction is we will probably see somewhere around two-thirds of all the votes this year cast before Election Day,” Bitzer said.
In 2008, Democrats were the masters of early voting. Not only did Obama win 56 percent of the state’s early vote over Republican John McCain, but Democrats also took advantage of the law allowing first-time voters to register at early-voting sites.
Of the 105,000 first-time voters who registered at the polls in 2008, 54,000 were Democrats, and 26,000 were Republicans. Most of the rest were unaffiliated.
All of that helped Democrats overcome an Election Day deluge.
McCain won 58 percent of the vote on Election Day, while Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory took 55 percent against Democrat Bev Perdue. Perdue’s early votes helped her to an ultimate 3-point win over McCrory.
Both sides point to one other indicator of interest in early voting in 2012: the request for absentee ballots.
Republican voters have requested nearly 87,000 absentee ballots, according to the State Board of Elections. Democrats have requested 47,000, while unaffiliated voters have asked for 36,000.
Republicans point to their advantage among those who vote absentee. Democrats say they’ve closed the gap from 2008.
Charlotte Observer Staff writers Jim Morrill, April Bethea, Gavin Off and Steve Lyttle contributed to this report.