Hillary Clinton’s campaign will be in barber shops and beauty salons, at rec centers on college campuses and outside African-American churches running “souls to the polls” programs.
Donald Trump’s backers will be collecting names and contact information from thousands of supporters at his massive rallies, as party foot soldiers plan massive door-knocking operations.
November 8 is just under two months away, but in states like Iowa, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina, Election Day is much, much closer. Early voting — both in-person and by absentee ballot — has exploded in recent presidential elections.
Clinton’s campaign is banking on a huge organizational advantage over Trump’s camp — one built on a steep investment in analytics and field organizing from her launch in early 2015, and on lessons learned by President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 races. In 2012, more than half of all Florida ballots — nearly 4.5 million — were cast by mail or in-person before Election day, with 43% coming from registered Democrats and 39% from Republicans, according to Florida Division of Elections. In North Carolina, 2.7 million people voted early — 48% Democrats and 32% Republicans.
Helping Clinton’s camp: It’s already made contacts, often multiple times, with her potential supporters in swing states, and has used Clinton, running mate Tim Kaine and top surrogates to underscore key early voting dates to top backers and volunteers at campaign events. As of August 29, Clinton’s campaign had 34 field offices in Florida for every one of Trump’s, and it has double the number of field offices as Trump’s in Ohio.
“You should be ready,” said Jeremy Bird, Obama’s national field director in 2012 and a Clinton consultant. “You should be starting to do dry runs for get-out-the-vote in any state that has early vote starting in October. Your operation should be ready to turn out the vote.”
Early voting is particularly popular among minority voters — a critical Democratic constituency — and older voters who might look to cast their ballots when lines are shorter. And while the results won’t be released until polls close November 8, many states have historically released party breakdowns on the voters who have cast their ballots early. That information provides a gauge of where the election stands — and helps each campaign decide where to focus the bulk of its attention headed into Election Day.
“It allows you to run Election Day multiple times. You don’t just have one bite at the apple — you have multiple bites,” Bird said. “You’re able to see every single day who is turning out, and then basically you’re shrinking your list (of targeted voters) every day.”
A total of 37 states, plus the District of Columbia, allow their voters to cast ballots by mail or in-person before the November 8 election with no excuse for missing Election Day required. Elections officials began mailing absentee ballots in North Carolina last week. Iowa starts early voting on September 29. Ohio and Arizona begin early voting on October 12, with Georgia coming five days later and Nevada on October 22. In Colorado, where voters will receive their ballots by mail, they can return them in-person starting October 24. Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina’s in-person locations will all open by Halloween.
In many of those states, more than half of all voters could cast their ballots early — before the second and third presidential debates, set for October 9 and October 19, take place.
Jeff Weaver, who ran Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign, said Clinton’s early voting operation was already finely-tuned in their winter and spring contests. He credited Clinton’s campaign with cultivating deep ties with local Democratic groups, African-American churches and Democratic activists and loyalists who play outsized roles in pushing voters in their communities to vote early.
Early voting “requires a tremendous amount of infrastructure and a particular kind of organizing that they were just very good at,” Weaver said of Clinton’s operation. “Their early voting operation was extremely effective — and I can’t think of an exception.”
Mitch Ceasar, the Democratic chair in Broward County — Florida’s most Democratic county — pointed to Bill Clinton’s recent trip there to meet with black ministers as evidence of the Clinton campaign’s targeted outreach.
“The local parties have been activated to register new voters, and are also chasing people who have also voted in the past but maybe missed a cycle,” he said, referring to Democratic-leaning voters who cast ballots in 2012 but skipped the 2014 midterm cycle.
Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, is rapidly expanding its own footprint, opening new field offices in swing states under the leadership of new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.
Most of its data collection has come from Trump’s massive rallies, which can draw up to 20,000 supporters.
The pro-Trump turnout operation is mostly being run by the Republican National Committee, which has claimed to make major gains in voter data and targeting since the 2012 race.
“The RNC has been leading the field efforts since 2013, and we’re working hand-in-glove with the Trump campaign, and we’re focused on the entire ticket,” said Lindsay Walters, an RNC spokeswoman. “We’ve been on the ground engaging with voters, collecting data and voter files for well over 1,000 days longer than Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, and we’ve seen the return in voter registration.”
The party has dramatically expanded its field presence since 2012, as well. Then, the RNC had 576 staffers on the ground; now, it boasts 6,000. In calls with Trump campaign aides, including David Bossie, the newly-hired deputy campaign manager, Trump officials have praised the RNC’s turnout efforts.
National Republican officials acknowledge that Democrats’ historical advantage in early voting will be impossible to erase — in part because Democrats’ more urban voter base makes early voting events in which backers are encouraged to make a group trip to the polls that day much easier for the party’s allies to pull off.
But Republicans point to voter registration in Florida and Pennsylvania, where data shows the GOP has significantly narrowed the gap since 2012.
“When it comes to this cycle versus ’12, engaging with voters face-to-face has proven to be a more successful model in turning out low propensity voters, than it is to be sitting in an office phone-banking,” Walters said.