The Memo: Campaigns gird for rush of early voting

There are just 89 days until Election Day — but voting will start long before that.

Many of the key battleground states in the presidential election allow voters to cast ballots well in advance of Nov. 3, whether by mail or in person.

The campaigns of President TrumpDonald John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the ‘Secretary of Failure’ Pence: Chief Justice Roberts ‘has been a disappointment to conservatives’ Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation MORE and his presumptive Democratic opponent Joe BidenJoe BidenGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Trump outraises Biden in July, surpasses billion for the cycle Duckworth: Republican coronavirus package would ‘gut’ Americans With Disabilities Act MORE are grappling with how to gain advantage.

Biden campaign sources tell The Hill that they have already sent more than a million texts to voters in Pennsylvania and Georgia encouraging voting by mail. 

The campaign is also drawing attention to news reports highlighting that Democrats are requesting mail ballots at higher rates than Republicans in every county in Pennsylvania. 

Late last month, the Florida Democratic Party announced that more than 1.8 million registered Democrats had registered to vote by mail in the state and claimed it gave them a 500,000-person edge over Republicans.

Florida is the biggest swing state in the presidential election, and Pennsylvania is another key battleground. Georgia, which has been seen as safely Republican in recent elections, is increasingly competitive. All three states have some form of early voting.

The Trump team, however, is determined not to let Biden run up a big early vote lead without a fight — even though those efforts have been complicated by the barrage of negative comments the president himself has made about voting by mail.

On Wednesday, the Trump campaign caused a stir by proposing an additional, earlier debate as well as the three already scheduled.

The campaign stressed the importance of early voting in making this argument, tallying up the statistics for how many Americans might have already voted before the currently scheduled debates got underway.

The figures cited by the Trump campaign were that “as many as eight million Americans in 16 states” could have voted by the time of the first scheduled debate on Sept. 29. Those figures could have increased to 20 million in 24 states by the second debate and to 49 million in 34 states by the third debate on Oct. 22.

Independent experts acknowledge that the unique circumstances of 2020 will make early voting more important than ever. 

“Even aside from this COVID pandemic, we would expect some increases” in early voting, said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who is also the author of a book on early voting. “Because of this we are expecting an even greater number.”

The Trump team, however, is also widely assumed to want more debates because their candidate is losing, at least according to opinion polls. It is a reliable political maxim that the candidate who holds the lead in any given campaign never wants more debates.

On Wednesday evening, Biden led Trump by 7 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average.

For Biden and his team, that creates an additional incentive for early voting. Broadly speaking, the more votes get cast earlier, the smaller the window for a Trump comeback becomes.

“Generally speaking, anything that shortens the election cycle is probably better for Biden,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “If you can bank those votes in advance of Election Day that is obviously something that works for Biden’s benefit.”

The Trump campaign faces a conundrum. 

The combined forces of the coronavirus crisis and the economic disruption it causes have done real damage to the president’s polling numbers. 

It’s reasonable to think that the president could expect his chances to improve the later people cast their ballots — especially if the economic picture brightens or a widely available COVID-19 vaccine appears much closer by Election Day.

On the other hand, the campaign does not want to cede the early vote to Biden or to discourage its own supporters from voting by mail. 

The second concern is particularly meaningful given that older voters are both more Republican-inclined than their younger counterparts and at graver risk from the coronavirus.

In recent days, Trump has tempered some of his rhetoric about voting by mail. 

At a White House press conference on Tuesday, Trump said Florida had “over a long period of time … been able to get the absentee ballots done extremely professionally.” He alleged the situation in Nevada was much worse.

On Wednesday, Trump met with Arizona Gov. Doug DuceyDoug DuceyThe Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association – Virus bill unlikely to pass this week Mark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Trump may have power, but he still has no plan to fight the pandemic MORE (R) in the Oval Office. The president told reporters that Arizona had also “done a good job” in terms of voting by mail but that the same efforts in Nevada and New York would be “a disaster.” 

Florida and Arizona are both battleground states that went narrowly for Trump in 2016. New York is solidly Democratic, while Nevada was won by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPence: Chief Justice Roberts ‘has been a disappointment to conservatives’ Top federal official says more details coming on foreign election interference The Hill’s Campaign Report: COVID-19 puts conventions in flux  MORE by about 2 percentage points.

The Biden campaign seized on Trump’s remarks to insist it has an edge. 

“While Donald Trump continues to spread debunked lies about voting by mail — depressing Republican turnout and sowing chaos within his own party — Vice President Biden and his campaign have built a massive organization in battleground states around the country to engage voters and educate them about their options for voting early this fall,” Biden campaign spokesman Michael Gwin told The Hill. 

“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 real leadership to the White House,” he added.

The Trump team counters that its supporters are much more enthusiastic than Biden’s. 

On Wednesday, the Trump campaign boasted, in an email to supporters, that its team is “already double the size” of the 2016 effort and has made contact with 70 million voters.

A Trump campaign spokeswoman, Samantha Zager, told The Hill, “By the time early voting starts, Americans in key states will be armed with information on President Trump’s successful American First Agenda because we’ve spent years connecting directly with voters on the ground.”

Zager contended that, by contrast, voters had “barely heard directly from Joe Biden.”

The Trump campaign has also refocused its TV advertising, after a brief pause, on early voting states. New ads aiming to tie Biden to more left-wing figures, including Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersProgressives soaring after big primary night ‘Absolutely incredible’: Ocasio-Cortez congratulates Cori Bush on upset victory over Lacy Clay Sanders supporters launch six-figure ad campaign explaining why they’re voting for Biden MORE (I-Vt.), were focused on four states with early voting: Arizona, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

“I know a lot of people look at the election countdown clock on our wall. It says 91 days,” Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien told Fox News early this week. “But ballots will be in the hands of North Carolina voters in 33 days.”

Election Day may be Nov. 3. But the election begins in little more than a month.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

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