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Another item to add to the long list of breeches of conservative orthodoxy by Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney: early voting.

Demonized by the right and under assault from Tea Party-backed Republican governors, early voting has become a symbol of the Obama era, boosting minority and youth turnout to historic levels in 2008. But it’s not clear the practice has historically benefited one party more than the other.

“Prior to 2008, Republicans did very well among early voters,” said Michael McDonald, a George Mason University professor who tracks early voting. “Republicans tend to vote by mail.” Florida’s then-Governor Jeb Bush praised early voting in 2004 as “a good thing.”

So even if millions of first-time and sporadic Democrats were ushered to the polls (or to the post office) by the Obama campaign’s aggressive, systematic early voting operation during his first campaign, the GOP establishment and machine — very much behind Romney — have historically tended to work the early vote hard.

“Looking at the other candidates, they neither have the money or volunteers” to mount aggressive early voting operations, McDonald said. “They’re haphazardly going from election to election. Romney’s the only candidate who really has the resources to engage in an early voting campaign.”

Early voting gave Romney his margin of victory in the Florida primary earlier this year, as exit polls show the candidate was far weaker than his 46 percent total among people who actually voted on election day. While Rick Santorum may have benefited from the early vote in Ohio, Romney’s campaign hums with a brutal efficiency that recalls the Obama effort.

And what was clearly a boon to Democrats the last time the president was on the ballot may be more of mixed bag this November. In states where early voting is still available to the public, that is.

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