Advisers to Trump keep reassuring Republicans that there is still plenty of time to rescue his candidacy, nearly three months to counter Hillary Clinton’s vast operation in swing states and get Mr. Trump on message.
The Trump team had better check the calendar.
Voting actually starts in less than six weeks, on Sept. 23 in Minnesota and South Dakota, the first of some 35 states and the District of Columbia that allow people to cast ballots at polling sites or by email before Nov. 8. Iowa is expected to have ballots ready by the end of September, as are Illinois and two other states.
The electoral battlegrounds of Arizona and Ohio are to begin voting on Oct. 12, nearly four weeks before Election Day. And North Carolina and Florida will be underway before Halloween.
Early voting has become a critical, even decisive factor in Presidential elections: President Obama was sufficiently ahead in the early vote in Iowa and Nevada in 2012 that his campaign shifted resources from those states to others, according to former advisers, who also credited enthusiastic early voting in 2008 for his victory in North Carolina and elsewhere.
Nearly 32% of voters cast their ballots before Election Day in 2012, according to census data, compared with 29.7% in 2008 and 20% in 2004.
With Mrs. Clinton spending aggressively to try to dominate the early vote, Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly created distractions for himself in the past two weeks, is in jeopardy not just of being outmaneuvered but also of running out of chances to improve perceptions of him enough to win over undecided voters.
“When you have something as catastrophic as the Trump campaign is becoming, there aren’t enough weeks left to turn things around, and little ability to organize effectively and capture a strong share of the early vote,” said Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican strategist who worked on behalf of Jeb Bush during the Primaries.
If Mrs. Clinton swamps Mr. Trump in the early vote in some swing states, she can move staff and money to the most competitive places, like Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, judging from recent polls, while he scrambles to battle on multiple fronts.
“As many as 40 percent of voters cast ballots in the early states, and you can’t organize overnight, or even in just a few weeks, and win them,” said Neil Newhouse, who was Mitt Romney’s pollster in 2012. “Truthfully, if the Clinton campaign inherited what the Obama campaign put together, they’ve got to have a head start in this over the Trump campaign.”
Indeed, Mrs. Clinton’s team, which includes a number of former top Obama campaign lieutenants, has been working with County officials to ensure that voters in swing states have places to cast their ballots early, organizing voters at the neighborhood level, and contacting those who may not know that they must request absentee ballots in jurisdictions that do not automatically send them.
Some Clinton allies are also organizing “Souls to the Polls” buses that take church members to vote immediately after Sunday church services in Democratic strongholds like Cleveland.
Early voters tend to be older and more partisan, and many choose to cast Absentee ballots by mail, while others prefer to go to polling sites during special evening and weekend hours. In Arizona, many vote early rather than stand in long lines in the heat on Election Day.
Early voting rules and times vary widely by State, and some Republican-led Legislatures have sought to put new limits on options like Sunday and evening voting, attempts that have been struck down in several court rulings. The Clinton campaign has “Voter Protection Teams” of lawyers pushing for as much early voting as possible.
“In every state, our goal is to use all available tools so more voters have their voices heard in this election — whether that’s by mail, early vote, absentee, or on Election Day,” said Marlon Marshall, the Clinton Campaign’s Director of State Campaigns and Political engagement. “We’ve been working for months to reach out to voters to make casting their ballot as easy and accessible as possible.”
Mr. Trump is lagging far behind. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, he has not been running television ads, which are crucial for engaging early voters, and he has State Organizers of varying experience levels and scattershot ground troops in most places. His campaign is leaning on the Republican National Committee (RNC) to open State offices to help with early voting. Both Mr. Romney and the 2008 Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, had more aggressive operations at this point.
Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s Campaign Chairman, said he did not think early voting would put Mr. Trump at a disadvantage, expressing confidence that the Campaign’s ground operation would be well organized and executed and that Mr. Trump would ultimately attract enough undecided voters to win.
Mr. Manafort said the Presidential debates would be critical for Mr. Trump; in the past, strong debate performances have led to a surge in early voting for the perceived winner, a boost that Mr. Romney enjoyed after he was widely seen as beating Mr. Obama in their first debate.
“We are organizing for this,” Mr. Manafort said about early voting. “We have very experienced people involved.” He declined to provide details.
After Mr. Romney’s performance in that first 2012 debate, Republicans turned out in droves to vote or cast absentee ballots; Mr. Obama recovered in the next debate, and his ground forces mobilized so strongly in some places that he was able to cut back on campaigning in some key states. He visited Des Moines on the eve of the election “for nostalgia, not need,” said David Plouffe, a longtime Obama Adviser.
“If you have an accurate model of how you are performing in early vote, you have an exact picture of where the race stands,” Mr. Plouffe said. In 2012, he added, the early vote trends in Iowa and Nevada meant “we could spend more time and money, most importantly.” Mr. Obama ended up winning Iowa and Nevada by about six percentage points and carried Florida with a one-point margin, he said.
But Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney also had Campaign organizations capable of capitalizing on strong debate performances. “I don’t know if Trump has a great debate or gets a spike in support after it,” said Mr. Murphy, the Republican strategist, “but he certainly doesn’t have the machinery to take advantage of it by getting those people to the polls.”
Mr. Trump has pointed to the usually large numbers of people at his rallies, and their evident enthusiasm, as signs of strong support that will translate into energetic early voters. But during the Republican Primaries, some Trump admirers at his rallies admitted they were not registered and had no plans to vote, and Trump advisers say that their Voter Registration efforts have been relatively modest.
Mrs. Clinton, by contrast, urges people at her rallies to register to vote, pointing them to clipboard-carrying volunteers who have forms to dispense and details about when, where and how to cast ballots.
“Hillary’s getting into early voting details while Trump can’t get past making awful sound bites,” said Bill Carrick, a Democratic Strategist and Media Consultant. “The idea that he can fix things and win over swing voters in the final week or two — that’s not how elections are won anymore. It’s wishful thinking.”
NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker