Campaigns adjust as voters cast ballots before Election Day

A recent poll found majority of voters plan to vote before Nov. 3

Campaigns and outside groups are adjusting to more voters casting  ballots before November due to the coronavirus pandemic.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Campaigns and outside groups are adjusting to more voters casting ballots before November due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 17, 2020 at 5:00am

Exactly seven weeks before Election Day, Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne reminded her supporters that the real deadline is even sooner.

“Listen, we only have three weeks until the ballots drop … and we need your help in talking to these undecided voters,” the freshman Democrat, who is in a competitive race against former GOP Rep. David Young, told roughly 200 supporters during a virtual rally Tuesday night over Zoom.

Axne was referring to Oct. 5, when ballots are mailed to Iowans who have requested to vote absentee. That date is front of mind for both parties in the Hawkeye State, which has competitive House races and a hotly contested Senate race.

“Now we look at election days starting on Oct. 5 and going until Nov. 3,” Iowa GOP spokesman Aaron Britt said.

More voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail or in person before Election Day this year due to concerns about crowding at polling places amid the coronavirus pandemic. In 2016, four in 10 voters cast their ballots early. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released last week found that six in 10 voters said they would prefer to vote before Election Day this year.

Voting has already started in the battleground state of North Carolina, where state officials began mailing ballots nearly two weeks ago. This month, 29 other states are set to mail absentee ballots to voters and early in-person voting will kick off in seven states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

For campaigns and outside groups, a surge in early voting, by mail or in person, means there is less time to get their messages out to voters. But it also means they need to spend more time on turnout efforts.

“It’s definitely had an impact on the strategic decisions that we’ve been making,” Guy Cecil, chairman of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action, told reporters earlier this month.

On the airwaves

In past election cycles, the end of summer was the unofficial start of campaign season, when political ads started to blanket the airwaves. But that hasn’t been the case this year.

“The adage that the campaign really starts after Labor Day, I don’t think anyone’s been operating under that assumption. And you see that in a lot of the spending,” said one GOP strategist involved in Senate races who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Candidates and outside groups, including both parties’ congressional campaign committees and aligned super PACs, started airing television ads earlier this summer. But some campaign strategists say the surge in early voting due to the pandemic wasn’t the only factor in earlier ad spending.

“Gone are the days where week one is all that matters, but I don’t think that’s unique to this cycle,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director Lucinda Guinn said in a Wednesday news briefing, referring to the week before Election Day. She said campaigns typically factor deadlines for mail ballots into their communication strategies.

Campaign operatives in both parties who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy said the early ad spending effort was the result of a combination of factors not directly related to the pandemic, including that voters were paying attention to campaigns earlier in the cycle. Democrats, particularly vulnerable House members, have also amassed sizable campaign war chests. They had the resources to start spending on TV ads earlier, forcing Republicans to respond with ads of their own.

But the fact that more voters may be casting early ballots this cycle means there could be less time for campaigns to deploy new ads and messaging and sway the outcome.

“Everyone talks a lot about an October surprise. … The more people who are locking in their votes early, the harder it is to have that kind of an impact on the race,” one Democratic strategist said.

‘GOTV month’

The early voting dynamic is also affecting both parties’ get-out-the-vote operations.

“It creates the need for campaigns to really think about that GOTV weekend more like GOTV month,” Tori Taylor, co-executive director of Swing Left, a grassroots Democratic group, said in a recent interview.

And it’s a challenge particularly facing left-leaning groups, since Democratic voters may be more inclined to cast their ballots early. The Washington Post poll showed a slim majority of GOP voters surveyed preferred to vote on Election Day, while 70 percent of Democratic voters wanted to cast their ballots before Nov. 3.

Swing Left is teaming up with nearly 30 progressive groups to mobilize volunteers to call, text and write letters to voters. In 2018, the effort was called the Last Weekend, a final turnout push in the final days before Election Day. But this year, they’re calling the effort Last Weekends, mobilizing volunteers over the three weekends leading up to Nov. 3, due to the expected increase in voters who want to cast their ballots early.

Priorities USA is shifting some of its resources to mobilizing turnout, including its first-ever effort focused on voting by mail, Cecil told reporters in a briefing earlier this month.

“It just means that our get-out-the-vote program is longer,” he said. “And of course, that also means you spend more money.”

The DCCC announced Wednesday that it was making an unprecedented $9 million investment to educate voters on how to vote by mail or in person this year. The effort, which will be focused on more than 50 House districts, will involve contacting voters via phone banking, text messages and mailings.

Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, announced earlier this month it was investing $10 million in a field program with organizers on the ground in a dozen districts, as well as a “ballot chase” program in 31 districts to ensure voters return their mail ballots.

“Adapt and overcome has to be the central mantra for any winning campaign,” CLF President Dan Conston said when he announced the program, “and no time has that ever been more true than in the era of coronavirus.”