May 2, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Inside Trump's stunning flip-flop on early voting

Illustration of a sign that reads "Vote Here, Vote Aqui" surrounded by ballot elements.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

After years of calling voting by mail "corrupt" and "crooked," Donald Trump and GOP committees are scrambling to convince their voters that it's safe and secure ahead of the Nov. 5 elections.

Why it matters: Democrats have built a large mail-in voting advantage over the GOP in swing states that could decide the election, as many Republican voters have bought into Trump's stated distrust of voting by mail.

Driving the news: Trump — who has long cited mail-in voting in questioning the results of the 2020 election — abruptly shifted his public messaging this month.

  • "ABSENTEE VOTING, EARLY VOTING, AND ELECTION DAY VOTING ARE ALL GOOD OPTIONS," he posted on Truth Social.
  • "REPUBLICANS MUST MAKE A PLAN, REGISTER, AND VOTE!"

In Pennsylvania, three Republican groups including the GOP's top fundraising committee for state-level leaders spent $1.5 million ahead of last week's primary to organize supporters to vote by mail.

  • The groups — the Republican State Leadership Committee PAC, Keystone Renewal PAC and The Sentinel Action Fund — will spend at least $8.5 million more on the campaign before November, according to a spokesperson.
  • As part of their messaging to skeptical Republicans, the effort emphasizes that members of the military have trusted mail-in voting for decades.

Trump's older son, Donald Trump Jr., also did ads for the effort.

  • "Pennsylvania, I need you to join the mail-in voting list today," he says to the camera, before pointing to a website, SkipTheLinePA.vote.

Reality check: It might be too late to rebuild the trust in vote-by-mail that Trump tore down after the 2020 election.

  • Trump repeatedly railed against the practice as recently late February. In Michigan on Feb. 27, he said: "Mail-in voting is totally corrupt ... Get that through your head."

Pennsylvania Republicans saw gains in vote-by-mail requests and returned ballots in the recent primary compared to the 2022 primary, but early GOP votes still trailed Democratic numbers by significant margins.

  • In a memo obtained by Axios, the leaders of the GOP's mail-in campaign in Pennsylvania acknowledged the divide: "Our program never sought to overtake Democrats in vote-by-mail voting outright ... our goal has always been to continue to chip away at their advantage and narrow the gap."

Zoom out: While the GOP's political apparatus is all-in on mail-in and early voting, it is still running into headwinds among some of the grassroots organizers.

  • Tyler Bowyer, chief operating officer of the student arm of the pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA, recently said: "We're not trying to encourage more people to get on the early voting list."
  • "If you vote too early, you're basically telling Democrats how many votes they need to win," he said.
  • Those comments provoked frustration and outrage among some veteran GOP operatives, including the conservative podcast "Ruthless" which led to an episode in early April criticizing the comments.

What they're saying: A Trump campaign spokesperson pointed to a recent post on Truth Social by the ex-president supporting early voting.

  • "Conservatives ... should do two things at once: Maintain our calls for election integrity (and) ... utilize all legal tools and tactics to turn low-propensity voters out and win in November," said Jessica Anderson, president of Sentinel Action Fund, which is funding mail-in efforts for conservatives in battleground states.
  • "Fresh off the heels of losing every competitive special election so far in 2024 and getting swept in 2022 and 2023, Republicans and the [Republican State Leadership Committee] are finally deciding four years too late that they want to catch up to modern campaign tactics," said Abhi Rahman, communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
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