Republicans say their voters will turn out en masse on Election Day as usual, but Democratic organizers expect that their party’s ability to bank millions of votes in September and October will allow them to focus more resources on increasing turnout in November among those who tend to vote less regularly, including younger voters of color.
The turnout gains in 2018 were broad, encompassing not only a surge among Democrats that delivered them the House majority but also a surge among Trump’s base in red states that helped the GOP simultaneously expand its advantage in the Senate. A similar dynamic could play out this year, increasing the uncertainty about the outcome. Before 2016, McDonald said, Democrats were more likely to benefit from higher overall turnout because their base included constituencies that were historically least likely to vote: young people, voters of color, and lower-income white voters. But working-class white voters have shifted to the right, and though polls show Biden leading in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, it is Trump who could benefit most if turnout increases across the board in the Midwest and the Rust Belt.
Polls that ask respondents about their interest in the election—often a predictor of turnout—show that Republicans are matching Democrats in intensity, but the stark divide between when and how the parties’ supporters plan to vote is creating uncertainty about turnout, and the outcome. “I am really curious to see what is the real Republican enthusiasm at the end of the day,” Alex Morgan, the executive director of the Progressive Turnout Project, told me. “Is this a Joe Biden landslide, or is this a squeaker because they showed up too?”
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Morgan’s group, one of the largest non-campaign organizations in the Democratic get-out-the-vote machine, leased 70 offices in 20 states in preparation for the election, but it has entirely foregone door-to-door canvassing and shifted to phone and digital campaigning. The Trump campaign has not given up door-knocking, transforming the 2020 campaign into a massive study on the relative efficacy of in-person versus virtual canvassing.
One possible effect of the Trump campaign’s commitment to in-person canvassing during the pandemic is that Republicans have outpaced Democrats in registering new voters in several important battlegrounds over the past few months. After Morgan and I spoke, the Biden campaign announced in a late about-face that after suspending its in-person ground operations for months, it would dispatch hundreds of trained staff and volunteers to knock on doors in key swing states in an effort to engage voters it could not reach through its phone and texting efforts. For now, the Progressive Turnout Project is sticking with its plan of exclusively virtual canvassing.