Trump risks hurting his own efforts to promote mail-in, early voting

Former President Trump is stepping up efforts to encourage voters to cast their ballots early and by mail after years spent railing against the practice.

Trump’s outreach team and the Republican National Committee (RNC) launched the “Swamp the Vote” program earlier this month, calling on supporters to overwhelm Democrats in the election with “massive turnout” through mail-in and early voting. This comes despite Trump blaming mail-in voting as part of his false claims of the 2020 election being stolen.

The program could start to change some attitudes on the right toward mail-ins even if it’s just on the margins in what is expected to be a razor-tight election. But there are risks Trump could fail to stay on message in what could be a deciding factor in November.

“When [Trump’s] pushing back on these things, it doesn’t really matter how much the party is pushing it,” said Republican strategist Samuel Chen. “The head of your party, the person that you’re trying to get everyone to vote for is pushing back on it, and that’s going to create a divided message.”

“A divided message, especially in election season, is never a good thing,” he added.

Some form of mail-in voting has taken place in the United States going back to even before the country was officially founded. It began happening on a larger scale during the Civil War with so many soldiers away from their homes and expanded further in the decades following.

It played perhaps its most significant role in U.S. history in 2020, with the election taking place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. State officials broadly encouraged mail-in voting, and several states took steps to make methods of voting other than in-person easier for the public heading into Election Day.

But Trump homed in on mail-in voting ahead of and following his loss to President Biden, claiming that the ballots cast by mail were prevalent with fake votes from individuals committing voter fraud, despite analyses of voting regularly showing minimal instances of fraud being committed. Still, Trump’s claims struck a chord with many Republican voters, who have continued to question the legitimacy of Biden’s win and this other form of voting.

Even before Trump raised these doubts, Democrats tended to be much more likely to vote early than Republicans, who voted more often on the day of the election.

The 2024 race is likely to be just as close if not closer than 2020, and Republicans have a lot of room to grow to catch up to Democrats, who are more likely to trust in the election process.

Trump’s approach regarding the early-vote program has appeared to be combining his questioning of the election’s legitimacy with the need to improve early vote totals for the GOP.

“We must swamp the radical Democrats with massive turnout,” Trump said in a statement when the program launched. “The way to win is to swamp them, if we swamp them with votes they can’t cheat.”

Trump also acknowledged the role that early voting will play in the race during comments he gave following his visit to Capitol Hill this month with House and Senate Republicans. He noted that key battleground states like North Carolina and Pennsylvania start their early voting in September.

“These are things different from the old days. We had Election Day and you had paper ballots and you had voter ID. Unfortunately — maybe someday we’ll get back to that, but you don’t have that right now,” Trump said.

This approach has allowed him to continue his claims surrounding the 2020 race and advocate for what he hopes could help him eke out a win in a close race.

“One can have concerns about mail-in voting, or even disagree with certain states’ laws, but it’s smart for the Republican Party to work within the system that exists for this election,” said Republican strategist Michael Zona. “That’s not inconsistent, it’s realistic.”

GOP strategist Nicole Schlinger said the concerns that Republican voters have with voting are understandable given the changes in rules that states passed because of the pandemic in 2020 and its aftermath in 2022.

Since Michael Whatley became chair of the RNC earlier this year, he has pushed for greater turnout and efforts to ensure ballots are properly counted and protected. He told ABC News that he expects almost half of all votes to be cast before Election Day.

“We want to make sure that everybody understands on the Republican side, as the president has said, multiple times, it’s great to vote early,” Whatley said. “It’s great to vote by mail. It’s great to vote on Election Day.”

Many Republicans see it as an advantage that Whatley is at the helm.

“I’m really impressed with the leadership Michael Whatley has shown at the RNC on this issue,” Schlinger said. “He has the longest and deepest experience with this of anyone in our party.”

But at the same time, only a few weeks have gone by since the early and mail-in vote program launched, and Trump has spent much more time rejecting early and mail-in ballots’ legitimacy than defending it. He is also known for shifting his messaging on various topics often.

Some Republicans said Trump may undermine his own efforts either because of his rhetoric in the past or in the future.

Chen said he expects the presumptive Republican nominee’s message on early voting will be that “even though they’re cheating with this, we have to do it,” but it will fall short of a full-throated endorsement. He said Trump may be more willing to back it in some areas where he has previously complimented the process, like Florida, but not others, like Pennsylvania.

He added that some element of GOP voters’ trust in mail-ins may be beyond Trump’s control, pointing to the instance where Trump was booed onstage by supporters when he encouraged them to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“That movement has moved away from him a little bit. They’re gonna vote for him. This is his movement, but he’s lost complete control of it,” Chen said. “I think if he came out today and said … ‘You should vote by mail, you should trust the system,’ I don’t know that that changes this narrative that much.”

Democratic strategist Matthew Rey said Democrats have “excelled” at early voting and voting by mail especially in the past three or four years. He said Republicans aren’t just trying to improve their numbers but are doing so “in the face of a long pattern of unnecessary, capricious attacks” on the process.

“So what is normally not a huge expense and messaging hurdle to overcome, it is now a much trickier thing for them to do, and I think they’re going to meet a lot of resistance in doing that,” Rey said.

He said Democrats still need to be prepared for a concentrated, well-funded campaign from Republicans and stay competitive with all the different ways to vote.

“So I don’t want to say that [Republicans are] not going to be successful, but I will say that it just means that we have to redouble our efforts in terms of the turnout and voter education programs that are run on the Democratic side,” Rey said.

And Republicans said in a race decided on the margins, the effort could still be decisive.

“Smart campaigns have aggressive early voting strategies, and in close contests, it can make all the difference,” Zona said.

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.