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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

August 14: The Building Blocks of an Early Trump Lead on Election Night

I have warning about a presidential election contested by Trump for months now, and can only watch it falling into place, as I explained at New York:

For months now, I and other observers have suggested that the president’s demonization of voting by mail wasn’t just aimed at securing restrictions in the practice by the states. He also wants his own supporters to vote in person. Why? Well, because if they comply, he is likely to take an early lead in Election Night returns that will only slowly erode as disproportionately Democratic mail ballots drift in after being authenticated and then tabulated. Since he has taken the position that mail balloting (except in Florida!) is fraudulent, and that elections decided after Election Day are “rigged” and stolen, then he will be in a position to claim victory and then contest any reversal of fortune.

If that’s the plan, it’s well on its way to implementation, as a new national survey from Pew Research indicates. Asked how they intend to vote, 80 percent of Trump supporters say they will vote in person (either on Election Day or earlier) and only 17 percent will vote by mail. Among Biden supporters, 58 percent say that will vote by mail as opposed to 40 percent who will vote in person.

If these numbers are even close to reality, since in-person votes are generally counted before mail ballots, Trump will be in a position to take an early lead nationally and in most battleground states. Any appearance of a pro-Biden trend later, or for that matter any logjam or other problems with counting mail ballots, will undoubtedly be touted by Team Trump as evidence of fraud.

When Trump first started his crusade against voting by mail, you had to wonder if it might backfire by denying loyal Trump voters — including elderly Trump voters — a way to turn out for MAGA without endangering their health. But a separate part of the Pew survey shows that Trump has also succeeded in minimizing their COVID-19 fears to an impressive extent. Asked if they found any in a long series of issues this year “very important,” only 39 percent of Trump supporters placed COVID-19 in that category, as compared to 88 percent of Biden supporters. Issues which a higher percentage of Trump supporters deemed “very important” included “violent crime” (74 percent), “Supreme Court appointments” (61 percent), “immigration” (61 percent), “gun policy” (60 percent), and “abortion” (46 percent). Perhaps these perceptions will change by the fall if Trump’s assurance that the pandemic is just going to go away predictably proves false. But for now, his people are more than willing to go vote for him in person. And the “blue shift,” whereby the latest mail ballots (and thus the last counted) tilt Democratic, can exaggerate the split between what we hear on Election Night and what we hear when the count is finally completed.

What can opponents of election tampering do about this fairly open plan to skew the early results? Well, it would be helpful if polls began to distinguish between those planning to vote by mail and those planning to vote in person, in order to make expectations realistic and head off the possibility that pundits and citizens alike will see the early returns and decide Trump’s 2016 miracle is happening again. Some pundit education is in order, too, so that the petulant behavior of TV gabbers when they were denied an early decision from the 2020 Iowa caucuses doesn’t recur.

The most important thing, however, is to make every effort to facilitate the efficient (and transparent) handling of mail ballots so that counting them isn’t unduly delayed, and BS fraud allegations are rebutted. And if they don’t want to get “counted out,” Democrats should do what they can, if conditions permit, to bank as many early in-person ballots as possible.

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