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Where early voting stands going into Election Day

In this June 9, 2016 photo, Fabiola Vejar, right, registers Stephanie Cardenas to vote in front of a Latino supermarket in Las Vegas. Shielded from deportation under an Obama administration program that protects those brought to the country illegally as c John Locher/AP Photo

As the candidates make their closing arguments before Election Day, millions of Americans have already cast their ballots for the presidential election.

At least 42 million citizens have voted early, with more than 18 million ballots cast in battleground states. This is a bit of a drop-off from 2012, when 46 million people voted early. Since early voting is a sign of enthusiasm for the candidates, it’s an indication that fewer voters were motivated to get to the polls early — perhaps due to the unpopularity of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

So far, this what we know from early voting results: More women have voted than men, Latino voter turnout is so far at an all-time high, and black voter turnout is still below the last presidential election, when Barack Obama was on the ballot.

The results are a mixed bag for Clinton and Trump, and as I have reported throughout, it’s tough to draw conclusions from early voting numbers — different states have different early voting laws and report ballot returns inconsistently, and drawing conclusions based on party affiliation is fallible at best.

But on a bigger scale, the early voting returns still seem to be following national polling: It’s a tighter race than Clinton would have hoped for, but there are some positive signs for the Democratic nominee going into Election Day.

It’s another big year for the minority vote — this time for Latinos

As my colleague Dara Lind writes, early voting has made a “serious case that the Latino ‘sleeping giant’ is finally rustling awake.” And it’s happening in a big way:

In Arizona, Latinos have gone from 11 percent of the early voting electorate in 2012 to 13 percent this year. In Texas, Latino early voting rose 26 percent. In Florida, 152 percent.

In North Carolina, an increase in early voting among Latinos in the face of restrictions has helped keep Democratic hopes alive in the state. In Nevada, a surge in the last few days of early voting made the state, according to state politics expert Jon Ralston, all but unwinnable for Republicans.

It’s a good sign for Clinton: When the early voting periods were about to open, University of Florida early voting expert Michael McDonald told CNBC, "There is speculation that Trump's rhetoric could entice Hispanics to vote against him, and there is some evidence in polls that Hispanic voting enthusiasm is running higher than normal."

His prediction has seemingly come to fruition, and it’s bad news for Trump in Florida, a state the Republican nominee cannot afford to lose.

The Clinton campaign is hoping the surge in Latino voting will counteract what has been a small decline in the black vote in states like North Carolina — as well as Clinton’s terrible numbers among non-college-educated whites.

Initial alarm bells over Clinton’s alleged “black voter problem” went off last week in Florida, where African Americans were slower to turn out than in the past two elections.

It’s not particularly surprising that Clinton’s early black voter turnout numbers weren’t matching Obama’s. But results have drastically improved, since those earlier reports — University of Florida early voting expert Daniel Smith called it “old news” at this point, projecting that total black voter turnout in Florida will actually be higher in 2016 than it was in 2012.

That’s not the case in North Carolina, however, which has seen an 8.7 percent decline — about 66,000 votes — in black voter turnout, much of which has been attributed to more restrictive early voting rules, including earlier poll closures. Trump and Clinton seem to be close to a dead heat in North Carolina, but a breakdown of the Obama coalition is a better sign for Trump.

Even so, Clinton’s overall strength on the electoral map may prove to hold her up, and while polls remain tight in states like Nevada, Clinton has also been able to grow a substantial margin in early voting — Democrats are up 6 points — which could prove to be a firewall come Election Day.

Early voting is a good measure of enthusiasm

Early voting is usually a good measure of enthusiasm; lots of early voters means lots of decided voters.

And while there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for either candidate this year, there is some speculation that people voting against the opposing candidate rather than affirmatively voting for their candidate might bring people to the polls.

Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center and a professor of political science at Reed College, said this could play out among the minority vote.

"Trump continues to make statements that alienate African-American voters, and he struggles to get beyond 2 percent in some state polls. Under that circumstance, and faced with a well-oiled Democratic [get-out-the-vote] machine, why would African-American voters wait?" he told me in September, noting that Trump also doesn’t seem to have much of an early voter ballot-chasing operation, which has been effective in getting out the Republican vote.

It is also an effective way to show the campaigns where to focus their day of get-out-the-vote resources. And that could make the difference with some demographics.

According to a recent poll from the African American Research Collaborative, black voters do recognize the stakes of the election. And while they are not as enthusiastic about Clinton as they were about Obama, Trump’s dog-whistling to white nationalist voters has resonated negatively among African-American voters; the “perceived importance” of voting for the president is higher this year than it was in 2012. In other words, black voters are still committed to casting their ballots this cycle.

"All of this might lead to an early electorate that is even more Democratic and more diverse than in the Obama elections — but all of this is contingent on all kinds of assumptions," Gronke said.

Early voting demographics have been changing

There has been a shift in early voting demographics in the past two decades. "Prior to 2008, these ‘decided’ early voters matched demographic patterns that are well-established in American politics," Gronke said; they were older, educated, wealthier, ideological, and highly partisan. And for the most part, particularly with mail-in voters, these early voters mostly leaned Republican, which can also be attributed to a strong GOP push for mail-in absentee voting in the 1990s and 2000s. Meanwhile, in-person early voters tend to lean more toward Democrats.

Barack Obama’s presidential campaign made a big stride with Democratic in-person early voting in 2008, targeting areas with higher Democratic voter potential — areas that also had higher populations of African-American voters. Black churches used Sunday services to push people to the polls in what they called "souls to the polls" initiatives, University of Wisconsin Madison political scientist Barry Burden recalls.

In 2012, more restrictive early voting laws also served as a mobilization tool to get out the vote, Gronke notes. “It ended up being nearly impossible to extract out the impact of the laws from the impact of the campaign,” he said.

For the most part, 2016 remains consistent with these trends. Notably, Democrats and the Clinton campaign have focused this year’s efforts on mail-in voting. They have had tangible results in states like Florida, where voter registration between Democrats and Republicans has evened out. While “compared to in-person early voting, absentee voting patterns in Florida do not deviate as much from 2012,” as Burden notes, Republicans don’t lead Democrats with as wide a margin in absentee voting this year. And according to the Clinton campaign, more African Americans requested mail ballots in this election than ever before.

Clinton may not have the same pull this year. But it’s still early to tell, and as University of Florida’s McDonald wrote for the Huffington Post Sunday, Democrats still have a lot of unreturned ballots in their hands:

Second, there are 71,700 more Democrats than Republicans who have requested mail ballots but have not returned them. While Democrats typically have a problem with unreturned mail ballots, my sense is given this lopsided number that at some point Democrats will start achieving at least daily parity in the returned mail ballots.

There are limitations to reading the early voting tea leaves

It’s important to remember — as a general scan of contradicting headlines on early voting from the New York Times to Fox News will show you — that it’s still early to say definitively that these early voting numbers indicate final results:

“It is quite difficult to discern what the election results will be from early voting numbers,” Burden said. “The patterns do not tell a coherent national story. … Ballots are coming in at different rates for the parties in each state. The messages appear to differ from one state to the next.”

And as McDonald warns in his weekly update on the early voting numbers for Huffington Post: “These are still early hints of the direction of the election. There is still much time left in the election, and these numbers can be affected by how election officials run the election, campaign strategies to mobilize voters, and voters’ behaviors.”

There are a lot of limitations: States reporting early voting totals don’t always include all counties; some states, like North Carolina, require party registration, while others, like Wisconsin, don’t; and numbers derived from party registrations are fallible. These distinctions can explain some of the early results.

University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket crunched the numbers for FiveThirtyEight on how well early voting numbers predicted the final tally in past elections. He simply concluded, “The relationship is positive, but it’s pretty noisy. In other words, knowing how a party is doing in early voting doesn’t tell you much about how it will do once all the votes are counted.” In fact, he found that looking at early voting numbers in 2012 would give you “wildly misleading” results:

Democrats maintained substantial leads among early voters in North Carolina, Louisiana and West Virginia, and were trailing by a relatively narrow margin in Oklahoma, but still lost those states when all the votes were counted. Republicans won early voters in Pennsylvania and Colorado but lost the final tallies there. Maryland was a safely Democratic state in 2012, but the 75 percent of the early vote that went the Democrats’ way was a far cry from the 63 percent of the total vote they won once voting was finished.

Even so, it seems like on a macro level, early voting supports national polling — which might be a sign of relief for Clinton voters.