Democrats have opened up a yawning gap in early voting over Republicans in six of the most crucial battleground states — but that only begins to tell the story of their advantage heading into Election Day.
In a more worrisome sign for Republicans, Democrats are also turning out more low-frequency and newly registered voters than the GOP, according to internal data shared with POLITICO by Hawkfish, a new Democratic research firm, which was reviewed by Republicans and independent experts.
The turnout data does not mean Donald Trump will lose to Joe Biden. Both sides are bracing for a close race and a giant wave of Republicans to vote in person on Nov. 3. Yet the turnout disparity with new and less-reliable voters has forced Republican political operatives to take notice.
“It’s a warning flare,” said veteran Republican strategist Scott Reed.
“Some Republicans are stuck in a model that we always run up the score on Election Day to make up the difference,” Reed said. “I think running an election in a superpolarized electorate, you want to win early voting. Let’s go. Let’s stop talking and making excuses.”
The GOP caught an encouraging glimpse in Florida on Tuesday, when more Republicans began casting in-person, early ballots than Democrats in Trump’s must-win state. But Democrats have dominated voting by mail and on Thursday held a historic lead in total pre-Election Day ballots cast of 463,000, or 10 percentage points, according to the state’s Division of Elections. Gov. Ron DeSantis this week urged Republicans to vote early in person, a message Trump plans to echo on Saturday, when he’s expected to call on his base to get to the polls.
At a glance, the top-line Democratic margins also look huge in Arizona (16 percentage points), Michigan (24 points), North Carolina (14 points), Pennsylvania (46 points), and Wisconsin (22), according to the analysis from Hawkfish, which is funded by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, a Trump foe.
Though the numbers look good for Democrats, they're not cause for complacency for Hawkfish’s CEO, Josh Mendelsohn, who echoes Republicans in saying that he expects high-propensity Trump voters to increasingly show up in force. Compared with Republicans, Democrats are exhausting far more of their high-propensity voters and the margins are expected to start tightening, as they have in Florida.
"Democrats are enthused, that's clear," Mendelsohn said, cautioning against a heavy reliance on forecasting models showing the likelihood of a Biden win.
“I find that folks want these models to be forecasts, and they want the forecasts to be like a hurricane forecast and just to be perfect,” Mendelsohn said. “And it's not, because it is like hurricanes, you've got a whole bunch of model tracks, of which some are more reliable than others in certain circumstances.”
With 11 days left until the election, time appears to be Trump’s enemy more than Biden’s.
“The concerning thing for Republicans is that once a Democrat vote is cast, or once a vote is cast in general, it can't be taken back,” said Chris Wilson, a top Republican data analyst who independently reviewed the Hawkfish numbers for POLITICO. “That to me is the bigger issue here: Our window to message and convert any of these voters away from voting Democrat is shorter than the number of days left in the campaign.”
Wilson compared the situation to an analysis for a battleground congressional district he has consulted for in which the Republican leads by a point, but Democrats have poured it on so heavily in early voting that his candidate needs to win Election Day by huge proportions.
“Great news. We lead [in the polls]. But if you look at the early vote, we have to win 2-to-1 on Election Day,” Wilson said. “And that's probably just about every contested race in America.”
While the campaigns and consultants are monitoring the ballots counted by party, the votes will not be tabulated until Election Day, and not every Democrat is voting for Biden nor every Republican for Trump. With some variations, battleground polling indicates each is pulling roughly the same number of votes from his base when averaged out, but Biden has a slight edge among independents, which could prove decisive.
With 47 million votes already cast nationwide in more than half the states, according to the U.S. Election Project, and as many 100 million more or so to go, the election is now being decided. But more than elsewhere, the presidency is expected to hinge on these six states. Here’s what they look like as of now, based on state data and Hawkfish’s analysis. It uses publicly available election data, and ascribes scores to voters that are based on demographic research to determine their likely level of support for a candidate:
Total ballots cast of 4 million registered voters: 1.1 million for which Hawkfish has support scores. Biden: 58 percent. Trump: 42 percent.
Ballots cast by newly registered voters: 75,000. Biden: 57 percent. Trump: 43
2020 Ballots cast by sporadic voters (registered in 2016 and 2018 but didn’t vote): 41,000. Biden: 54 percent. Trump: 46 percent.
Democratic takeaway: Polls show Biden leading as well as Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly. Compared with 2016, Democratic returns are 74 percent higher while Republican returns are up 29 percent.
Josh Zaragoza (D), Javelina Strategies: "Both Biden and Kelly have been up in virtually every poll — significantly up in many of those polls. This only reinforces that this is the most favorable political environment for Democrats since 2008 and perhaps ever in Arizona — or at least in the 21st century."
Republican takeaway: More than 200,000 conservatives who either refused to vote in the presidential race in 2016, voted for the Libertarian candidate or voted for write-in candidates have come home to Trump now that he has a record appointing conservative judges and cutting taxes.
Sean Noble (R), Encore Strategies: “That Democrats are turning in ballots at a higher rate than Republicans is not a surprise, because Republicans as a bloc are less confident in the mail system ... Republicans are also more concerned about fraud. ... So they will either show up on Election Day and vote in person or they will show up and drop off the ballot in person.”
Total ballots cast of 14.4 million registered voters: 4.2 million for whom Hawkfish has support scores. Biden: 56 percent. Trump: 44 percent.
Ballots cast by newly registered voters: 422,000. Biden: 55 percent. Trump: 45 percent.
Ballots cast by sporadic voters: 174,000. Biden: 53 percent. Trump: 47 percent.
Republican takeaway: The Republican Party of Florida has 470,000 more high-propensity voters than Democrats who have yet to vote. The Democratic Party also traditionally has more sporadic and newly registered voters as a share of their electorate, so the numbers aren’t out of whack.
Tim Baker (R), Data Targeting: “The absentee and early voting numbers for Democrats are seemingly a reflection of their most reliable voters shifting voting methods and ultimately a cannibalization of voting method and not necessarily a turnout indicator at this stage. We are encouraged by the increase in Republican voter registration and the enthusiasm we are seeing across the state."
Democratic takeaway: No party has ever jumped to a lead like Democrats have in pre-Election Day voting. Factoring in independents, who are largely composed of No Party Affiliation, Biden appears to be winning the swing voters of the swing state.
Kevin Cate (D), CATECOMM: “The Republican spin on turnout and the enthusiasm gap sounds a lot like the Democratic spin in cycles where Democrats lost the top of the ticket. If you cut through it, Democratic turnout is unprecedentedly quick, large, and new — and so is No Party Affiliation turnout.”
Total ballots cast of 8.1 million registered voters: 1.8 million for whom Hawkfish has support scores. Biden: 62 percent. Trump: 38 percent.
Ballots cast by newly registered voters: 139,000. Biden: 63 percent. Trump: 37 percent.
Ballots cast by sporadic voters: 96,000. Biden: 53 percent. Trump 47 percent.
Democratic takeaway: While Michigan does not have hard party registration figures like most other states, internal Democratic modeling gives Biden an edge so far.
Steve Pontoni (D), political consultant: "The number that’s most interesting to me is that as of (Wednesday morning) over 250,000 people have voted who did not vote in 2016 and that’s 23 percent of people who have already voted. And the average age is in the high 50s, and when we model them, it’s a strong Biden constituency from what we can see.”
Republican takeaway: Though the Democratic lead before Election Day is big, Republicans are counting on strong white working-class support for Trump and relatively low Black voter enthusiasm for Biden in urban areas.
John Sellek (R), Harbor Strategic in Michigan: “Polling here shows Biden leading amongst those who voted early so far, yet we are consistently seeing Republican voters expressing slightly higher excitement about voting than Democrats. We are also seeing Republicans conducting voter registration in blue-collar areas that's never been possible before. ... However, if turnout is over 5 million, which would break Michigan's 2008 record, it becomes very difficult to find enough Republicans to keep up at the statewide level.”
Total ballots cast of 7.3 million registered voters: 2.1 million for whom Hawkfish has support scores. Biden: 57 percent. Trump: 43 percent.
Ballots cast by newly registered voters: 148,000. Biden: 60 percent. Trump: 40 percent.
Ballots cast by sporadic voters: 61,000. Biden: 51 percent. Trump: 49 percent.
Republican takeaway: Even when Democrats have won early voting in past elections, a surge of Election Day votes has powered Republicans to victory. And while they’re being trounced in mail ballots, the first few days of early in-person voting have been stunningly high for Republicans, already helping close the gap.
Patrick Sebastian (R), Majority Strategies and nephew of former Gov. Pat McCrory: "Right now, it's really about even, as far as both parties having their Election Day voters vote early this year. So I think that's a good thing. I think it is going to all hinge on, though, low-propensity voters.”
Democratic takeaway: Early voting has always favored Democrats in the Tar Heel State, where they’re expected to build out a lead. Democrats are returning mail votes at a significantly greater clip than Republicans, and there are drastically more people voting early than years’ past.
Morgan Jackson (D), Nexus Strategies: “Democrats currently have a pretty broad advantage, not only in registration, but looking at who the unaffiliated voters are that are voting. They're much more urban, and suburban unaffiliated, that are college educated. And that has been a very good demographic for Democrats, not only in North Carolina, but all across the country.”
Total ballots cast of 9 million registered voters: 1.2 million for whom Hawkfish has support scores. Biden: 73 percent. Trump: 27 percent.
Ballots cast by newly registered voters: 57,000. Biden: 72 percent. Trump: 28 percent.
Ballots cast by sporadic voters: 88,000. Biden: 64 percent. Trump: 36 percent.
Democratic takeaway: Pennsylvania has slowly drifted from the president in polling and his handling of coronavirus came at the worst time for him.
Neil Oxman (D), The Campaign Group: "When Trump started acting more normally in the summer, he regained ground. But then you had this complete meltdown starting with the debate and him getting Covid and at that point ... people started voting.”
Republican takeaway: The rural areas of Pennsylvania where Trump dominated in 2016 are still highly enthusiastic.
Charlie Gerow (R), Quantum Communications: “There is an army of red-hat wearing folks that are marking their calendar for Nov. 3. They’re champing at the bit. You saw that with his rally in Erie this week. He has these gigantic crowds, enormous, in places where you wouldn’t expect to see a dozen people.”
Total ballots cast of 3.6 million registered voters: 844,000 for whom Hawkfish has support scores. Biden: 61 percent. Trump: 39 percent.
Ballots cast by newly registered voters: 66,000. Biden: 61 percent. Trump: 39 percent.
Ballots cast by sporadic voters: 10,000. Biden: 53 percent. Trump: 47 percent.
Republican takeaway: The numbers on early voting and polling don’t tell the whole story of Wisconsin. Rural whites are often undersampled in surveys and data on early votes aren’t always reported because smalltown clerks don’t have the resources to quickly process and report the information to the state.
Keith Gilkes (R), the Champion Group in Wisconsin: “In the past year or more, we've held more registration events and had more new registrations in rural parts of the state that Donald Trump won compared to what Hillary Clinton won. So, we have an influx of new voters and new registrants as well. If there’s a slight uptick in white non-college educated in the rural areas of the state, it’s hard to account for that in polls. People take this state for granted all the time, and it comes back to bite them in the ass, which Hillary Clinton learned.”
Democratic takeaway: Coronavirus cases are on the rise in Wisconsin, along with voter anger at Trump’s handling of it.
Sachin Chheda (D), Nation Consulting in Wisconsin: “Nobody's talking about Kenosha. They're talking about Covid. They're talking about these coronavirus numbers. And if you are a Republican counting on an in-person vote on Nov. 3, with the coronavirus numbers spiking, the chances of people showing up to vote are lower, especially if your base is older or more likely to get sick. They have to make up a huge deficit on Election Day in the middle of the biggest pandemic the country has seen in 100 years.”