WASHINGTON — The political calendar says Joe Biden and Donald Trump have, as of Sunday, exactly 100 days left to convince Americans they’re the right man to be president.
In reality, both have far less time before many voters make their decision.
The 2020 election is widely expected to feature a higher concentration of votes cast before Election Day than any modern presidential election, driven by rule changes that have loosened restrictions on early absentee voting and a pandemic that has scared many people from casting their ballots in person.
In many key battleground states, millions of voters are expected to submit their ballots in September — while nearly all of them could see a surge of votes as many as four weeks ahead of the big day.
The earlier voting will challenge campaigns for both Biden and Trump in unprecedented ways, testing their ability to adapt to the newfound conditions while reaching out and educating their voters about how to now cast ballots.
For Trump, trailing Biden by double-digits in some national polls of the race, early voting could truncate the amount of time he has left to stage a comeback, underscoring the need for him to begin making up ground on the former vice president sooner rather than later.
“You don’t want to be peaking the fourth week of October,” said David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. “You want to make sure all the things you want to have said really are out by the end of September.”
“A bunch of people will have voted by the first debate,” he added, referring to an event scheduled for Sept. 28 at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
Of the six core presidential battleground states, five of them — North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida — will begin sending absentee ballots to voters who requested them in September. As soon as the ballots are received, voters can return them through the mail. The lone state that won’t allow voters to submit ballots in September, Arizona, begins early voting and sending absentee ballots through the mail on the same day, Oct. 7.
No battleground state lets voters submit their ballot sooner than North Carolina, which will begin shipping mail-in absentee ballots to people who requested them on Sept. 4, nearly two full months before Election Day. Mike Rusher, a Republican operative there, expects absentee balloting to swell from about 5% of the total vote in the last general election to nearly 30%, which means voters can expect more intensive outreach in August and September.
“Early money spent will be of great benefit now,” Rusher said.
In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, mail-in ballots skyrocketed during this year’s primaries by more than four times the number in 2016. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania is leading a public education campaign to let his constituents know that applying to vote by mail takes as long as making the bed or preparing a bowl of cereal.
Voting early has been a key feature of recent presidential elections, and the challenge they pose to each presidential campaign is, at a certain level, nothing new. But what’s changed this year is an electorate, worried about contracting coronavirus showing a deep aversion to the traditional process of casting a ballot at a local polling place, favoring instead to submit their ballot through the mail.
The effect of that aversion has already been dramatic. In Wisconsin’s April primary, held during a surge of COVID-19 cases in the state, 60% of voters voted absentee through the mail, according to Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Normally, he said, absentee voting through the mail makes up about 6% of the vote.
But moving to a mail-in system presents risks. For instance, in Wisconsin, one analysis found that an estimated 23,000 primary ballots were thrown out because voters missed at least one line on the form, rendering them invalid.
“Those numbers from the primary scare me. That’s a lot of votes to be spoiled in an election,” said Plouffe, who urged Democrats to embark on a full-fledged campaign to inform voters of all that’s required to make sure ballots are converted into actual votes. “If it’s a state where postage is required, make sure they’re aware of that. If it’s a state where they have to sign both the ballot and the envelope, they’re aware of that. The deadlines. It is just a really high degree of difficulty.”
Tom Bonier, a Democratic data analyst, said a poll his firm conducted in late May showed that 70% of Georgia voters said they planned to vote before Election Day, including 43% who said they plan to vote by mail and 27% who said they would vote early at an in-person polling place.
Pinpointing exactly what share of the vote will arrive before Election Day is difficult, political strategists say, and whether anyone but hard-core partisans — the kind who long ago decided whom they would back in November — will vote as early as September is equally unclear.
But they still expect the process to be so different from previous presidential elections that it is almost unrecognizable.
“I do think it’s safe to say that a majority of votes will be cast before Election Day,” Bonier said, “with the majority of those coming by mail.”
Trump’s assertion that a mail-in surge would lead to “the most corrupt vote in our nation’s history,” has undoubtedly made it more difficult for Republicans to fully embrace and emphasize the process. Biden even predicted this week that Trump would use it as an excuse to “steal the election.”
Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster, said in one recent survey of a battleground state, he found that 27% of all voters reported they planned to vote by mail. But of those 27% of all voters, fully 75% planned to support Biden — compared to just 15% who said they would back Trump.
Waiting until Election Day to vote is risky, the pollster said, because unexpected events could thwart someone’s plan to cast their ballot, and even reductions in turnout could have big consequences.
“That’s something you have to work to fix, because you don’t want to leave votes on the table because there’s a spike in the virus right around election time, or there’s a patch of bad weather,” Bolger said.
The Trump campaign indicated it isn’t consumed by the prospect of an earlier mail-in vote since Republicans traditionally tend to enjoy the traditional Election Day routine of voting in person. Whether one votes in early September or on Nov. 3, the ballots all count the same and Trump’s field operation contends it has a distinct tactical advantage over the Biden campaign simply because it has been making more contacts — 65 million this cycle — to potential supporters over a longer period of time.
“It should keep the Biden campaign up at night that (get-out-the-vote) starts after Labor Day and they’re just hiring in these states. It’s malpractice,” said Rick Gorka, a Trump campaign spokesman. “How do they have the nomination wrapped up in March and you’re just bringing on staff in Wisconsin?”
Democrats say their organizing teams in Florida, Pennsylvania and Georgia have texted over 1 million voters in each state encouraging a vote by mail.
While the Biden campaign is just now putting together its get-out-the-vote operation, it is dubious of the Trump campaign’s contact claims. The Biden campaign has also had more help from the outside.
On Tuesday, a consortium of 23 progressive groups will hold a vote-by-mail day of action to attempt to close the knowledge gap around the process.
There are also concerns for Republicans in the early data: In Florida, for example, 1.46 million Democrats have enrolled in a vote-by-mail program, compared to 1.16 million Republicans.
“The record-breaking Democratic turnout during primaries this spring and summer, and our growing advantage in vote-by-mail applications in key states is proof that our approach is paying dividends and that there’s a real groundswell of enthusiasm to finally bring some leadership to the White House,” said Michael Gwin, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign.
But as the primaries showed, don’t expect an earlier vote to translate into quicker tabulations of results on election night. Battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were all slow to count because verifying the authenticity of absentee ballots is a more laborious process.
Nonpartisan election officials caution that counting votes will take longer than past elections. Absentee ballots that arrive by mail take longer to process than ballots cast in person.
“I think we need to manage expectations, in terms of it probably not being an early election night,” said Magney, the spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
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