By James Oliphant, Chris Kahn and Megan Cassella
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ted Wade hasn’t cared about politics enough to cast a vote in a U.S. presidential election for almost a quarter of a century, back when he supported Ross Perot’s independent candidacy in 1992.
But Republican Donald Trump's 2016 White House bid has motivated Wade to get involved and he plans to support the real estate mogul in Nevada’s nominating caucus next month. Trump is a "non-politician" who can fix the "chaos" in Washington, he says.
About one in 10 Americans who plan to cast a vote this election will do so for the first time in years, if ever, and Trump holds a decided edge with them, according to polling by Reuters/Ipsos. (http://tmsnrt.rs/1SgeLvi)
These voters offer Trump a pool of voters who could be decisive either in the Republican primaries or a general election. They could be crucial for Trump in early-voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina, where his nearest rival, Senator Ted Cruz, is putting pressure on Trump and enjoys a strong base of support with more traditionally conservative voters.
In Reuters/Ipsos polling from June to December 2015, 27.3 percent of these “new” voters said they would vote for Trump, higher than his poll numbers among independents and Republicans who regularly vote.
By way of comparison, Cruz captures just 3.4 percent of these voters. And Senator Marco Rubio of Florida snags only 4 percent.
“I’m tired of the chaos between Democrats and Republicans and want to give somebody a try who I think can make a difference,” said Wade of Trump.
The 51-year-old has already switched his affiliation from Democrat to Republican and even attended a Trump campaign event in Las Vegas. He has told his three older children to get involved in the elections, although he did not say whether he wanted them to vote for Trump.
Trump, the Republican front-runner, has made targeting “lost” voters such as Wade a focus of his campaign. His anti-immigrant rhetoric and protectionist trade proposals have helped him to fashion a message tailored to reach Americans alienated by the endless enmity between the political parties and who, because of declining economic prospects, may feel like neither party has done much for them.
Trump’s strategy is a gamble, given the lack of reliability of many of the voters with whom he is most popular.
In interviews, some of those lost voters insist they will show up, saying they are drawn to Trump’s outsider status and his willingness to upend the political system.
PAGING A PIRANHA
Tucson, Arizona, resident Renay Cunningham, 56, said she had never paid much attention to politics in the past. She plans to cast her first ever vote for Trump after hearing his proposed policies to curb illegal immigration, which include building a giant wall on the southern border and making Mexico pay for it.
“We need a piranha in there, and he’s definitely a piranha,” she said.
Trump and his operatives are confident they can do what few of his rivals for the Republican nomination have shown they can do — expand the party’s potential voter pool.
But while Democrat Barack Obama did that eight years ago by largely registering new voters, including record levels of minorities, both male and female, in urban centers, Trump’s campaign has instead largely sought out the disaffected, who tend to be overwhelmingly older, white, and less educated than the broader electorate.
“My whole campaign has been focused on expanding the number of people who want to, and will, participate in this election cycle,” Trump wrote in a recent op-ed in USA Today.
When analyzing “lost” or “new” voters, Reuters compiled poll results from people who haven’t voted in the previous two presidential campaigns and midterm congressional elections.
The results focused only on those who said they were nearly certain to vote in the November election. It included responses from 3,440 “new” Republican and independent voters – a sample that has a credibility interval of 2 percentage points.
Jan Leighley, an expert on turnout at American University, said it’s too soon to compare Trump’s “new” voters with the disenfranchised voters, especially minorities, who in 2008 turned out in record numbers to elect the first black president.
Those voters didn’t find their way to the polls simply because they were inspired to make history, Leighley said. “He also had a kick-ass mobilization structure."
“Obama’s campaign went door-to-door. They canvassed whole neighborhoods. “I don’t know if he (Trump) has the campaign infrastructure to make sure that the folks who are riled up are walked to the polls on Election Day,” she said.
CHANGING THE RULES
Trump’s campaign insists he does have the infrastructure, but won’t provide specifics on how it intends to turn casual supporters into engaged voters. The campaign says it does follow up with the thousands of attendees who jam arenas for Trump’s rallies.
That’s one significant advantage the reality star has over the other candidates in the Republican field, as the challenge in reaching voters who have fallen out of the political process often lies in simply locating them.
“We’ve identified a lot of people in early primary states who have not participated in the process before,” campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told Reuters.
Lewandowski resists the notion that Trump needs to turn out “new” or reluctant voters to win states such as Iowa.
Even if the Trump campaign isn’t necessarily counting on them, it may be reassuring that his supporters among “new” voters who responded to the Reuters/Ipsos survey appear motivated to cast a vote for him. At least for the time being.
Ronald Thomas, a 49-year-old truck driver and Navy veteran in North Carolina, said he, too, has never voted in a presidential contest. His girlfriend would push him to vote but he would always say "Yeah, but the right one ain’t come along yet,’” Thomas said.
Trump is that man. His willingness to take on the government has set him apart as someone who would "actually look out for the people," said Thomas. Now he wants to know how to register so that he can vote for the billionaire.
And there’s Vince DiSylvester, a retired maintenance worker in Missouri, who, at 73, said has never cast a ballot for president. But Trump has inspired him to rethink that.
"He's a businessman, he knows business, he knows how to get things done," he said. "And he tells it like it is. If you don't like it - well, too bad."
(Editing by Ross Colvin)