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Huge turnout in early vote points to Democratic edge in some key states

Many people have taken advantage of early voting in Pennsylvania, Florida, and elsewhere.
Many people have taken advantage of early voting in Pennsylvania, Florida, and elsewhere.Mark Makela/Getty

HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. — Carin Jenkins could not be more excited to vote for President Trump. Dressed in an Uncle Sam costume and impatiently waiting for Trump’s son Don Jr. to kick off a rally last week, she praised the president for everything from getting Black Lives Matter “under control” to his handling of the economy.

But that doesn’t mean she’s going to cast her ballot early.

“Absolutely vote in person,” Jenkins, 42, said Tuesday of her method of choice. “I don’t support the mail-in ballots at all. You go on Election Day and vote like we have every other year.”

Less than a mile away at the county’s 19th-century courthouse, a steady stream of voters — some too nervous to give their full name to a reporter, given political tensions in the dark-red area — dropped off their mail-in votes for Joe Biden the following morning.

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“I’m sure it’ll be fine to put it in the mail, but I just want to make sure,” said Maureen Duffy, 50, who voted for Biden. “I feel a very big duty to get it in this year.”

Duffy is among millions of voters, with masks on and hand sanitizer at the ready, who are blocking out incessant and unsubstantiated claims from Trump about fraud and “cheating” in order to have their say in this contest as early as possible. Like Duffy, those voters are skewing Democratic, in Pennsylvania and other key states, which is giving wary Democrats — who remain traumatized and suspicious of polls after Hillary Clinton’s surprise 2016 defeat — reason to hope heading into Election Day.

More than 56 million Americans have cast ballots in the election already, according to the US Election Project. That’s an unprecedented early-vote tsunami that comes despite a relentless assault on mail-in voting by Trump, who has warned his base away from the method. Both Republicans and Democrats are voting early far more than in 2016 as options have expanded in many states because of pandemic health concerns, but a partisan gap has emerged: In Pennsylvania alone, more than twice as many Democrats have voted early than Republicans so far.

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“Republicans are voting in much larger numbers than they did in 2016, but the vote share is being tilted very much toward Democrats, presumably because Republicans are heeding the president’s urging to vote on Election Day,” said Tom Bonier, the CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm that has estimated that Democrats lead Republicans in early voting by about 5 million votes nationally.

Trump’s warning on mail-in voting comes with a big risk. Biden is steadily banking votes not just from reliable Democrats, but from first-time and infrequent voters, who might be harder to turn out on Election Day if there is bad weather or long lines.

“It really builds the pressure” on Republicans, said David Jolly, a former Republican member of Congress from Florida, where GOP officials have tried to counter Trump’s messaging and encourage Republicans to vote by mail. “A vote’s a vote: It’s better to have it in the bank than waiting on Election Day.”

Randy McKinney, of Clearwater, held "I Voted" stickers moments after casting his ballot at the Pinellas County Courthouse during early voting in Clearwater, Fla.
Randy McKinney, of Clearwater, held "I Voted" stickers moments after casting his ballot at the Pinellas County Courthouse during early voting in Clearwater, Fla.Douglas R. Clifford/Associated Press

The millions of ballots already cast in this election make up more than a third of the total votes in the 2016 election. Overall turnout looks poised to smash the 2016 numbers, as voters on both ends of the political spectrum show heightened enthusiasm.

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“Turnout has just been massive,” Bonier said, predicting that about 60 percent of the total 2020 vote ultimately may be cast before Election Day.

Last week, the Globe interviewed early voters in three key swing states — Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina — where both Republicans and Democrats described feeling an urgency and special duty to vote in a high-stakes election taking place during a global pandemic.

“It’s extremely important to us to honor those who fought for the right to vote,” said Kemia Lockhart, a realtor who brought her family to vote at the Wells Recreation Center in Riviera Beach, Fla., on the first day of in-person voting there. “We have a right to speak our truths.”

Democrats have an average 5 percentage-point lead in the early vote across 14 battleground states, according to an analysis by TargetSmart. That advantage is higher in certain states crucial to Biden’s path to the presidency like Pennsylvania, where mail-in ballots are the only early-voting option. A quarter of that early vote in the battleground states is coming from infrequent or first-time voters, suggesting that Democrats aren’t just banking votes they’d get anyway, but are actually drawing in new voters.

In Florida, 2.1 million Democrats had voted by Friday, as opposed to 1.7 million Republicans, according to the ElectionProject data. Registered Republicans are now outpacing Democrats in the in-person early vote, which began on Monday, attempting to catch up with Democrats’ lead in the mail-in vote.

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“They’ve tried everything they can do to neutralize the president’s attack on mail balloting,” Jolly said of Florida Republicans. “If I’m a Republican in Florida, I’m worried today.”

Republicans are staying hopeful by focusing on two factors. First, GOP turnout nationally tends to be strong on Election Day no matter what, so it’s reasonable to expect a surge of Election Day voting that will make up for their slow start.

“In 2016, Election Day turnout was huge for Trump, and it likely will be again this year,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Second, the party has seen a favorable bump in voter registrations in key Midwestern states in recent weeks among non-college educated white and rural voters, which would probably favor them. Republicans' reported enthusiasm to vote is also keeping pace with Democrats in surveys.

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, cautioned against reading too much into the early-vote data at a time when COVID-19 has upended voting patterns. “You cannot project the election based on early turnout because there are no precedents for this,” he said. “We’re here in a pandemic that has encouraged people to vote early.”

Several Trump voters in Pennsylvania said they planned to wake up early on Nov. 3 to cast their votes for him, raising the possibility that a red sea of fired-up Trump supporters could wash away the Democratic advantage that day. “I’ll be one of the first ones there,” said Jamie Powers, a 69-year-old retiree in Hollidaysburg.

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But in the meantime, Democrats are continuing to build their steady early-voting lead, ballot by ballot. In North Carolina, more than 2.6 million people have cast their ballots in person or by mail so far, shattering records from the 2016 presidential election with an avalanche of votes that are skewing Democratic.

Voters in Charlotte, N.C., waited in line to cast their ballots on Oct. 15, the first day of early voting.
Voters in Charlotte, N.C., waited in line to cast their ballots on Oct. 15, the first day of early voting. GRANT BALDWIN/AFP via Getty Images

At early-polling locations in Charlotte early Thursday, many Black voters said they were driven to vote — and vote early — by a desire to see a change in the White House as Trump has refused to condemn white supremacy and failed to adequately address police violence against Black people.

“People have seen that the worst that is hidden in them has come out,” said Willie Morris, a 75-year-old retired engineer who voted for Biden at a public library.

Walking out of the polling location nearby, Chautauqua Ellison, a 47-year-old teacher who took the day off to vote for Biden, put it more bluntly: “I’m here to get a racist out of office.”

After casting ballots for Biden inside the towering Bank of America Stadium, Tisean Franklin, 29, a truck driver, and Marsalis James, 33, an Air Force recruiter, said they voted early to send a message of encouragement to other Democrats to do the same after so many sat out the 2016 election.

“Some people just need a little push,” James said.

Democrats are cautiously optimistic as Biden has retained a steady 9 percentage-point lead on Trump in national polls as early votes roll in.

“The data objectively is good right now,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic consultant. “I say ‘right now’ because obviously campaigns are constantly in flux.”

There are still many unknowns that haunt Democrats as they contemplate their early lead. Mail-in ballots, which Democratic voters are casting at far higher rates than Republicans, generally have a higher chance of being discarded than in-person votes, due to mistakes in filling them out or mail delays. The Trump campaign has also signaled it plans to mount an aggressive legal battle against some mail-in ballots, challenging states to throw out any ballots that arrive after Election Day, even if they were postmarked in time.

But campaign experts generally believe the benefits of banking votes early outweighs the risks. Campaigns can cross voters off their lists once they’ve voted, reallocating money to persuading or mobilizing other potential voters. They also don’t have to worry about voters being scared off on Election Day by long lines, weather, or a COVID-19 outbreak.

That relief is palpable among voters, too.

“It feels great,” said Kathy Greene, in Riviera Beach, as she stuck two different “I voted” stickers next to her Joe Biden pin. “I feel like now I can focus on other things.”

Still, Democrats are far from ready to break out the champagne, despite the promising signs.

“Had we not lived through 2016, if you just took these polling numbers and these early-vote numbers, you’d be so confident at this point of a Democratic win,” Bonier said. “There’s no one who’s confident who I’ve come across.”


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa. Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.