Politics: Voting starts earlier than you might realize. It has Trump battling the clock in some battleground states

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WASHINGTON — Mail-voting for the presidential election is just weeks away in several key states, elevating the importance of next week's Republican National Convention for President Donald Trump to change the race's trajectory before the first votes are cast.

As polls continue to show Trump trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the incumbent president is battling the clock in battleground states like North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, Michigan Pennsylvania that start sending out and accepting absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election in September. In all, 16 states begin voting before Sept. 29, according to the Trump campaign.

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Just a handful of states including Minnesota offer in-person early voting in September, but mail-voting will be an option in more than a dozen. Some states intend to mail ballots to voters who requested them even earlier than usual.

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"With COVID and the increase in ballot requests, we're trying to move that date up to make it as early as we can do it," said David Scanlan, deputy secretary of state of New Hampshire, who anticipates printing and mailing absentee ballots to New Hampshire voters on Sept 19. Typically, New Hampshire waits until 30 days out from the election to begin mailing ballots.

More could ride on early-voting than previous election cycles because millions more voters now have the option to vote by mail – and are expected to smash mail-voting records – amid the coronavirus pandemic. Thirty-seven percent of registered voters say they plan to vote by mail, according to a survey by the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape project, which also found Biden voters twice as likely to vote by mail than Trump supporters.

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Alarmed by U.S. Postal Service cost-cutting measures put in place by Trump's postmaster general, Democrats have waged a concerted push to get their voters to return their mail ballots as soon as they can.

"We’ve got to request our mail-in ballots right now, tonight, and send them back immediately and follow up to make sure they’re received," former First Lady Michelle Obama said at this week's Democratic National Convention. "And then, make sure our friends and families do the same."

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms urged Democrats, "Early vote during the early vote."

Mail-voting kicks off first week of September in one swing state

North Carolina, one of six battleground states where the Biden and Trump campaigns have devoted the most resources, begins sending mail ballots to voters who requested them on Sept. 4. Voters can return them as soon as they arrive, likely making the Tar Heel State the first to vote.

Georgia, historically a solidly Republican state but where polls show Biden is competitive, is scheduled to send absentee ballots to voters Sept. 15. In Minnesota, a state the Trump campaign has targeted but where polling shows Biden ahead comfortably, voters can return mail-in ballots or vote early in-person beginning Sept. 18.

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Most counties in Pennsylvania, a state Trump won narrowly in 2016 and is among the race's most crucial swing states for both campaign, also will start mailing ballots to voters in September.

Municipal clerks in Michigan, another critical swing state that Trump narrowly won in 2016, must start sending absentee ballots to voters who made requests by Sept. 24. Voters are encouraged to vote and return them immediately.

Florida, which most analysts believe Trump must carry to win reelection, sends absentee ballots out between Sept. 24 and Oct. 1. Democrats have requested nearly 600,000 more absentee ballots in Florida than Republicans, according to state records.

"People tend to think of this election season as Nov. 3, but there is this space right after the conventions in several states where people are going to be casting (ballots) and making a decision," said Amy Dacey, former CEO of the Democratic National Committee who is now executive director at American University's Sine Institute of Policy and Politics. "And they're going to be making it in the context of now – not what happens in late September, not what happens in October.

"If you're sitting in this position where you're not seen as ahead in the polls, you've really got to get to these voters to find ways to get the enthusiasm up and get them voting on your side."

Biden, still ahead, has seen lead narrow

Despite Trump's strong rhetoric against mail-voting, the Trump campaign and state parties in swing states have worked around the president's messaging to urge Republican supporters to vote by mail. That includes mailing absentee ballot applications to voters in some swing states.

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Trump has narrowed the gap in national polling slightly over the past month, with Biden now leading by 7.6% percentage points, according to the Real Clear Politics, down from 8.7 percentage points on July 22. But Biden's lead remains statistically significant and he has maintained leads in most battleground states.

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Biden leads Florida by 5 percentage points, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls, Pennsylvania by 5.7 points, Minnesota by 5.3 points, Michigan by 6.7 points and New Hampshire by 9.3 points. North Carolina, a state Trump won in 2016 by nearly 4 points, is a dead heat, with polls showing Trump ahead by less than 1 percentage point. Trump also has a 1-point polling lead in Georgia, a state he won by 5 points four years ago.

"I think things are looking up for Trump," said John Feehery, a longtime Republican strategist. "The question is, with COVID and with the economy, can it happen quick enough so that he can make a comeback?"

"If people are early voting, there's not necessarily going to be an October surprise," he said, but added he doesn't think early voting will be as critical some believe.

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Trump strikes out with fourth debate

The three televised presidential debates between Biden and Trump are set for Sept. 29, Oct. 15 and Oct. 29. Historically, the debates offer the biggest opportunity for candidates to make a splash in the homestretch. In a race during a pandemic  – with few memorable on-the-trail moments as Biden campaigns out of his home in Delaware – the debates will take on even more importance.

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But they won't take place until 16 states have already started voting – a problem for a campaign that's running behind. Hoping to change that, the Trump campaign requested a fourth debate for the first week of September, but the Commission on Presidential Debates this month rejected the request.

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The commission noted that voters are under "no compulsion to return their ballots before the debates,” pointing out that during the 2016 election, which had a similar debate schedule, "only .0069% of the electorate had voted at the time of the first debate." Still the commission, in a letter rejecting the Trump campaign's request also acknowledged "more people will likely vote by mail in 2020."

"I think that the people who are motivated to vote and already have made up their minds are going to get out there early and vote," said Feehery, who previously served as press secretary for former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

But he said the outcome of the election will boil down to others: those undecided between the candidates and an even larger swath of people he believes are unsure whether they will vote at all:

"I don't think that people who are early voting are in that category."

Both campaigns cater TV ads to early-voting states

After briefly pausing television ads following the exit of Brad Parscale as campaign manager, the Trump campaign launched a new advertising campaign on Aug. 5 led by new campaign manager, Bill Stepien, targeting early states such as of North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

"In reality the election starts a lot sooner," Stepien said in a statement, referring to the countdown to the Nov. 3 election. “In many states, more than half of voters will cast their votes well before Election Day and we have adjusted our strategy to reflect that."

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Meanwhile, it its $280 million paid television and digital advertising blitz across 15 states, the Biden campaign this month also pointed to the early-voting states as areas of focus.

"We're confident that we have a larger path to 270 (electoral votes) available to us and there's a broader swath of states that we want to be advertising in," Patrick Bonsignore, the Biden campaign's director of paid media, told reporters. He added that the Biden campaign will target states that vote earliest and probably invest "heavier in the summer and fall than later on."

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Will Trump do more than rally base at convention?

Before voting begins anywhere, Trump gets his stage at the Republican National Convention. It comes after Democrats used their convention to frame the election as a referendum on Trump, who they argued not only failed to handle the coronavirus and economic crises, but threatens democracy itself.

"Next week the president must cut the lead," said Ari Fleischer, former secretary for George W. Bush. "I have no question about that. If after the Republican convention is over, if the president is trailing by as much as he is now, it's a singular sign of major problems."

Fleischer said the Democratic National Convention left an opening for Trump to build his case on public safety at the RNC. He suggested Republicans feature police officers wounded in recent nationwide protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd and small businesses hurt by riots. He also said if COVID-19 cases continue to drop it can "fundamentally reset the race" for the final two months.

"I don't think the clock is the issue as much as the gap. Trump is down. He needs to narrow the gap," Fleischer said. "And then there is time."

In addition to Trump's "law and order" push, the RNC will almost certainly portray Biden as a puppet for socialism. One new Trump ad, featuring images of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, warns "the radical left has taken over Joe Biden." Another warns Biden would provide amnesty to undocumented immigrants.

Trump previewed more of the messaging during remarks at Scranton, Pa., on Thursday. arguing that voting for Biden would lead to national ruin and chaos. Tying Biden to violent protests has become a go-to message of Trump to win back suburban voters from Biden.

"If you want a vision of your life under a Biden presidency, imagine the smoldering ruins of Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland and the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago – and imagine the mayhem coming to your town and every single town in America," Trump said.

But Democrats are skeptical Trump will be able to reach beyond his base to target voters who have strayed to Biden – something he needs to do in a hurry.

"I'm more interested in their convention next week than I am of ours," David Plouffe, a former adviser for President Barack Obama, said on MSNBC this week. "Because Trump's behind. So how does he use these four hours essentially to begin to add to his support back?"

Plouffe doubted Trump is capable of making the necessary pivot.

"If it is really just a series of grievances, insults and white-power hours, he can have all the time he wants. Because I don't think that's going to help him at all.

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"If he were making speeches, conducting interviews, sending out social media posts that would gain back some of what he's lost with senior voters, with suburban voters, with college-educated voters, I'd worry, because he does have a unique ability to dominant the oxygen," Plouffe said. "But right now he's just fouling the oxygen."

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @Joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Voting starts earlier than you might realize. It has Trump battling the clock in some battleground states


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