At 32, Ryan Walsh has never voted in a presidential election. He didn’t identify with either party before this year. But in the spring, he registered as a Republican, and he plans to cast a ballot in person Tuesday for President Donald Trump.
“I’m petrified of Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi getting power and doing all this stuff that’s going to totally destroy the economy,” said Walsh, who works for a social services agency of state government.
He cited a string of proposals that trouble him — broad tax increases, the Green New Deal, “Medicare for All” — that Biden has said he opposes. Walsh does not believe him.
Voters who didn’t show up in 2016 are Trump’s “secret weapon,” said Walsh, who lives outside Pittsburgh and works in Westmoreland County, an exurb where the Trump campaign is indeed hoping to expand its margin compared with 2016. Walsh called polls showing the president trailing “a joke,” adding, “He will do nothing but gain in the areas he won last time.”
With recent electoral history and current polls suggesting that Democrats are likely to make gains in the vote-rich suburbs nearly everywhere, Trump’s path to reelection has always required expanding his support in rural and exurban counties in Pennsylvania, as well as in other industrial states where he squeezed out victories in 2016.
Now that early voting is underway, the question of whether he can increase that support is no longer academic. Trump is attracting tens of thousands of voters like Walsh who sat out 2016 in Pennsylvania. Around 24% of the 424,000 registered Republicans who have cast early mail-in votes in the state did not vote four years ago, according to TargetSmart, a Democratic elections data firm.
But before the Trump campaign takes a victory lap, the same data analysis shows that in Pennsylvania — where at least 1.9 million voters had returned ballots as of Thursday — Democrats are keeping pace. About 1 in 4 of the 1.3 million registered Democrats who have voted did not vote in 2016.
Both parties are succeeding in one of their chief goals this year: to motivate large numbers of infrequent voters or non-voters to come off the sidelines for what supporters of both nominees call the most crucial election of a lifetime. It was a goal that eluded Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary, but with Democrats united, Biden is pulling it off. And Trump is answering critics who said his appeal was limited to those in his base who voted for him four years ago.
The trends playing out in Pennsylvania are seen across 14 battleground states, where more than 10 million people who didn’t vote in 2016 have already cast ballots this year, making up 25 percent of the early vote in those states.
“The fact that 1 in 4 didn’t vote in 2016 suggests there’s a whole lot of these turnout targets who didn’t come out before, who have been motivated to come out,” said Tom Bonier, chief executive of TargetSmart.
So far, the data shows that more Democratic-leaning voters who didn’t cast ballots in 2016 are turning out than Republican-leaning voters.
“Nationally, Democrats have a modeled advantage of 14.5 percent with those non-2016 voters,” Bonier said.
But that is partly because Trump has made mail-in ballots toxic to many of his supporters through his frequent (and unfounded) claims that mail voting is ripe for fraud. Trump supporters are expected to dominate in-person voting on Election Day in some battleground states. The current Democratic advantage with non-2016 voters could even out by Election Day.
Remarkably, the surge of voters who did not vote four years ago is not primarily driven by people who have turned 18 since 2016. Nationally, the number of early voters this year who are 50 and over and didn’t turn out in 2016, which was 6.4 million as of Thursday, was greater than those under 30, about 4.9 million. All age groups are exhibiting an intense interest in voting.
Geraldine Folk, 82, of Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, recently sent in a mail ballot for Biden, her first presidential vote ever.
“I’ve never seen a president like this in all my life, and I went through a lot of presidents,” she said of Trump.
“He was on with Stahl last night on ‘60 Minutes’ and he was obnoxious and left — he’s not a decent person,” Folk said of Trump’s bolting from an interview with CBS journalist Lesley Stahl. “I hate the way he’s running this country. It’s just a disgrace.”
Trump’s 44,000-vote victory in Pennsylvania four years ago, in which he won by less than 1 percentage point, hinged on places like Westmoreland County, once a blue-collar Democratic stronghold, which the president carried by 31 points, a wider margin than in any of the state’s other populous counties.
The Trump campaign and its allies have pumped resources into expanding that margin. Route 30 into Greensburg, the county seat, features a pro-Trump billboard promising to “Keep Nat Gas and Coal Jobs” and another attacking Biden as “a totally corrupt politician.”
Brittney Robinson, the Republican National Committee’s state director in Pennsylvania, said the party had made a “huge investment” in data that it has used to “find these people who are likely to support the president who may not have voted for him in 2016” and try to turn them out.
The Biden campaign said that Trump’s share of voters has not grown even if he is turning out new supporters.
It pointed to internal data that Democratic early voters who didn’t participate in the last presidential election outnumber Republican voters who didn’t turn out by 2 to 1.
“Our strategy in Pennsylvania has always been to energize, mobilize and turn out our base in Democratic strongholds, expand on Democratic gains in the suburbs and collar counties, and win back voters who gave Trump a shot in 2016 or may have sat out that election,’’ said Brendan McPhillips, the Biden campaign’s state director.
Without the state’s 20 electoral votes, Trump would have an extremely narrow path to reelection. Biden has wider options, based on current polling in battleground states.
Despite efforts by the president’s campaign and outside groups to expand his support with the voters most likely to back him — white blue-collar workers — polling shows him trailing his 2016 bench marks. In the latest New York Times/Siena College poll of Pennsylvania, the president led Biden among white voters without four-year college degrees by 13 points — a considerable narrowing from his 32-point edge among these voters against Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to exit polls.
Four years ago, polls of congressional districts with large numbers of white working-class voters were a little-noticed alarm signaling Clinton’s vulnerability in the state. Now, public and private polls of those districts in Pennsylvania suggest trouble for Trump.
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