Donald Trump has spent much of the past year discouraging his supporters from voting by mail. The president has warned that mail-in ballots carry a “tremendous potential for voter fraud,” and that they often get “dumped in rivers” before they’re ever counted.
The president’s rhetoric was likely aimed at abetting GOP efforts to restrict access to mail-in ballots, and/or establishing a preemptive excuse for his likely loss. Whatever its purpose though, Trump’s words were ill-appreciated by his co-partisans. For months, Republican operatives have been warning that the president was effectively depressing his own party’s turnout, and handing Democrats an advantage. As a GOP official in Wisconsin told NPR in late August, “If there is another flare-up of the virus or an early snowstorm on Election Day, some Republican voters may not turn out, while the Democrats would have mailed in their ballots.”
Some 42 million Americans have already cast a ballot in the 2020 election, according to the early-vote tracking site ElectProject.org. We cannot know yet how they voted, but across the 19 states that include party registration in their reports of early ballots, 52 percent of all early voters have been registered Democrats, while just 26.1 percent have been registered Republicans.
In NBC News’ tally, Democrats’ early-vote advantage is being felt in the key swing states of Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
Now, it’s entirely possible that this advantage will prove fleeting. The Trump campaign, for its part, has mounted a Facebook ad blitz encouraging GOP voters to forget everything the president ever told them about mail-in voting. And anyhow, all else being equal, you’d rather have in-person votes than mail-in ones, as the latter have higher rejection rates.
But by banking so many of their core voters early, Democrats have already secured a meaningful tactical advantage. In some states, the party’s operatives have been able to shift their focus away from mobilizing their party’s reliable voters to seeking out infrequent ones.
Meanwhile, the “third surge” of the U.S. COVID-19 outbreak is growing. On September 12, the seven-day average of daily COVID-19 cases in the U.S. was under 35,000; as of yesterday, it sat at more than 60,000. Wisconsin, Florida, and Iowa (where Democrats boast a large advantage in the early vote) are among the hardest hit. And all available evidence indicates this outbreak is going to get worse over the next two weeks.
All this means that the Republican Party’s hopes of retaining the presidency, Senate, its existing House seats, and many state legislatures may ultimately depend on GOP voters turning out en masse on November 3 — amid a coronavirus surge, and in the face of early-vote totals that suggest Donald Trump is almost certain to lose, whether they risk their health showing up at the polls or not.
This is just one of many plausible scenarios for the campaign’s homestretch. But it’s one that could yield a Biden landslide of historic proportions. And if GOP turnout does come in disastrously low on Election Day, Donald Trump will deserve a lot of credit for accidentally suppressing his own party’s vote.