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Analysis

The biggest question about the presidential race that no one is talking about

Voters lined up outside the Bedford Public Library in Bedford, Texas, on Oct. 21, 2020, during early-voting in the state.
Voters lined up outside the Bedford Public Library in Bedford, Texas, on Oct. 21, 2020, during early-voting in the state.COOPER NEILL/NYT

Political analysts have spent months talking about key voting blocks. Suburban women. Black and Latinx voters in swing states. White working-class women. And the only group that has shifted in a big way since 2016: seniors, who are moving away from Trump.

But with less than a week to go the race the biggest question about the presidential race — and the biggest worry for Republicans — is about the patience of Trump’s own political base. How long are they willing to wait in line to vote for him?

By all measures, the 2020 presidential election is headed to historical turnout. The nation’s foremost early vote analyst says the nation is headed to have its largest percentage turnout since the 1908 elections.

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It would make sense. Voters are motivated. And casting a ballot has never been easier. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, every state has allowed for some form of mail-in voting.

By Thursday afternoon, 79 million Americans had already voted. In 2016, roughly 130 million Americans voted, the largest raw number in history. Some project that in 2020, about 150 million will vote, suggesting that almost half of all voters have yet to vote.

By all estimates, the vast majority of those voting early are Democrats. This means that even if a meteor hits America on Tuesday (it’s 2020, after all) then Democrats have banked those votes (provided they don’t catch fire after the meteor hit.) Republicans in poll after poll say they are following President Trump’s advice and voting in person on Election Day.

To be clear, Republicans can make up the gap on Election Day and actually win. In fact, they are counting on it. On a call with reporters on Monday, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said Trump will win re-election because of their get-out-the-vote ground game on Election Day.

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Stepien could be right. But there may never have been an American election where a single party had so much on the line in just a single day. Everything has to go correctly, especially with every single poll all year showing Trump has a very narrow path to getting the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to win reelection.

All of this raises the question about Trump’s base. Will his base show up at the polls? Yes. Will they want to vote for Trump? Yes. But what if the line takes 3 hours? Or what if it doesn’t take that much time but the line look deceivingly long because of social distancing measures? (Rain doesn’t appear to be in the forecast in any major swing state on Tuesday, so Republicans do have that going for them.)

But are the lines enough to make, say, three percent of casual Trump voters, who did make it the polls, leave the line or never get in line in the first place? Will a casual Trump voter prioritize a wait in line for hours over picking up a child from school or helping with remote learning?

At this point, with tight polls in key swing states from Florida to North Carolina to Arizona and Pennsylvania, those three percent or so of casual Trump voters could be key. The election might be decided on the patience of the Make America Great Again crowd.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.