WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump’s unfounded attacks on mail balloting are discouraging his own supporters from embracing the practice, according to polls and Republican leaders across the country, prompting growing alarm that one of the central strategies of his campaign is threatening GOP prospects in November.
Multiple public surveys show a growing divide between Democrats and Republicans about the security of voting by mail, with Republicans saying they are far less likely to trust it in November. In addition, party leaders in several states said they are encountering resistance among GOP voters who are being encouraged to vote absentee while also seeing the president describe mail voting as "rigged" and "fraudulent."
As a result, state and local Republicans across the country fear they are falling dramatically behind in a practice that is expected to be key to voter turnout this year. Through mailers and Facebook ads, they are racing to promote absentee balloting among their own.
In the process, some Republican officials have tried to draw a distinction between "absentee ballots," which Trump claims are secure, and "mail ballots," which he has repeatedly attacked. In fact, the terms are used interchangeably.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, describing a recent meeting with a group of Republican voters in Fort Payne, said he felt compelled to explain that there is only one kind of mail-in voting in Alabama, and that it is safe and secure.
"They were confused about two different kinds of mail-in balloting," he said, "where one is 'good' and one is not."
Merrill's concerns were echoed by senior White House and campaign aides, as well as GOP operatives in numerous key states including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to criticize the president.
"It is a problem," said one Republican strategist in North Carolina. "The president has oversimplified the issue to criticize the method of voting, rather than the way it's done. The details matter."
Republican National Committee spokesman Mike Reed disputed the view that Trump's attacks on mail voting are a threat to Republican turnout. "Some are going to vote absentee through the proper process as they always do, and you will see us encouraging them to do that," Reed said. "But many of our voters just prefer to vote in person."
With the novel coronavirus pandemic still raging across the United States, election officials in dozens of states have addressed fears of infection at the polls by preparing for a massive increase in mail balloting. Officials in both parties are building turnout operations geared specifically to mail voting on the belief that a majority of voters will prefer to cast their ballots this way.
At least 77% of American voters will be able to vote through the mail in the fall, according to a Washington Post tracker of state rules.
At the same time, Trump's campaign and the RNC are fighting against the expansion of mail balloting, seeking to stop efforts backed by Democrats and voting rights advocates to loosen rules, such as witness signatures and identification requirements, that would make it easier for people to vote by mail. GOP party officials argue that such restrictions are necessary to prevent fraud.
The president has gone much further, however, launching wholesale broadsides against the concept of voting by mail that have emerged as a central strategy of his campaign.
"The 2020 Election will be totally rigged if Mail-In Voting is allowed to take place, & everyone knows it," he tweeted July 26, one of more than 70 attacks he has made against voting by mail since March, according to a tally by The Post.
Senior Trump advisers, including RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, have warned the president that his broad rhetoric is complicating Republican turnout efforts, multiple strategists said. McDaniel and Justin Clark, Trump's deputy campaign manager, have repeatedly encouraged the president to promote the use of absentee ballots. McDaniel has additionally urged him to stop his blanket attacks on mail voting and present a more nuanced message.
GOP officials around the country said more clarity from the president would help voters. "I think that is the distinction he is trying to draw," Merrill said. "I would hope that he would be more specific in his explanation so people understand what the difference is."
Trump has indicated that he has no plans to back off his attacks on the integrity of the vote, strategists said. Some advisers acknowledged privately that the president may be laying the groundwork to claim the election was rigged if he loses in November.
Just last week, Trump suggested delaying the election until Americans can safely cast ballots in person.
In recent days, Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General William Barr both spoke publicly about the risk of fraud they said was inherent in mail balloting, without offering evidence. The president also recently elevated Clark, a lawyer who has led his campaign's litigation efforts to restrict the expansion of mail voting. And the White House is expected to repeatedly emphasize the risks of "mass mail-in voting" in upcoming months, according to a senior White House official.
"He tweets about this every day," said a campaign adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking. "Clearly, it's his concerted strategy."
On Monday, the president accused Democrats in Nevada of "an illegal late night coup" after the state legislature passed a bill that would allow ballots to be sent to all active voters, while also requiring a minimum number of in-person voting locations. Trump tweeted that it "made it impossible for Republicans to win the state" and claimed the U.S. Postal Service "could never handle the Traffic of Mail-In Votes without preparation."
"See you in Court!" he added.
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said there is nothing confusing about the president's distinction between absentee balloting and all-mail voting. He declined to address concerns in the party that Trump has discouraged his supporters to vote absentee.
"President Trump was quite clear that universal mail-in voting, as Democrats are pushing, is ripe for fraud, while normal absentee voting by mail is completely different," Murtaugh said. "There's a vast difference between voting absentee for people who can't get to the polls on Election Day versus mailing every registered voter a ballot, even those who didn't request one."
In fact, only a handful of states are planning to proactively send mail ballots to all voters. They include three that have successfully conducted virtually all-mail elections for years: Washington, Oregon and Colorado.
Democrats are not seeking mail-only elections in most states, in part because many of their voters, especially people of color and younger Americans, have historically been less likely to vote by mail.
Meanwhile, there are now growing signs of a palpable impact on GOP enthusiasm for mail voting.
A Monmouth University poll of registered voters in Georgia taken late last month found that 60% of Democrats are at least somewhat likely to vote by mail this fall, compared to 28% of Republicans.
Glen Bolger, a pollster with the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies, said that in one swing state he declined to identify, only 15% of voters planning to cast ballots by mail were Trump supporters. "Republicans are skeptical about voting by mail, and that's a problem up and down the ballot," he said.
Similarly, an analysis of current absentee ballot requests in North Carolina shows that Democrats have vastly outpaced Republicans, even though roughly the same numbers of Republicans and Democrats voted by mail four years ago.
"Everybody's up," said Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., who conducted the analysis. "It's just that Democrats and unaffiliateds are through the roof, and Republicans are not even on the second floor."
Bitzer said Trump's "mixed messages" about absentee balloting are probably one factor, along with more enthusiasm and greater coronavirus concerns among Democrats.
Republicans have been working in creative ways to try to counter the effects of Trump's words. State and national Republicans are inundating their voters with Facebook ads and mailers promoting the message that absentee balloting is safe. Some of the messages claim that Trump is criticizing only the practice of "universal" mail-balloting - sending ballots to all registered voters.
One recent Facebook sponsored post from the Johnston County, N.C., Republican Party exhorted voters not to dismiss a GOP mail piece coming their way: "ATTENTION!!! If you receive an ABSENTEE BALLOT MAILER like shown in this picture, please know that it is legitimate!!!"
"Please don't confuse North Carolina's absentee system with other states' all-mail elections," read the message from party chairman. "NCGOP and JoCo GOP agrees with the President that our current absentee ballot request system is safe and secure."
The assurance was met with skepticism from many commenters. "Burned it! I will go in person to vote straight Republican," wrote one.
"Why is the GOP sending this out," wrote another, adding: "You know damn well that we are arguing against this, and here it is our own damn party sending this horse dung out?!!! Whoever is in charge of this should be fired. I am going to the polls, Don't send me one."
Another recent ad, from the Alaska GOP, lamented how few Republicans have requested absentee ballots and urged supporters to submit their request "NOW."
Reed, the RNC spokesman, said there is a "clear difference" between what Democrats are seeking this cycle and a typical absentee ballot request process.
"Washington Democrats and the media may not understand these distinctions or be willfully misconstruing them, but our voters understand it," he said.
However, some of Trump's advisers don't think he has done a good job explaining the distinction - while others have admitted there really isn't a difference. In one lawsuit pending in Pennsylvania, the president's lawyers argued that "the terms 'mail-in' and 'absentee' are used interchangeably."
More than 30 states - including Florida, where Trump voted absentee in the primary this year - allow any voter to cast a ballot by mail.
For their part, Democrats are challenging measures that they argue create unfair hurdles to voting, such as rules limiting who can cast absentee ballots, while also pushing to extend early in-person voting and ensure that all Election Day voting locations are able to open with full staffs.
Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer who is leading voting litigation in 18 states this year, said the president's muddled messaging has "sawed off the limbs of every House and Senate candidate in America" trying to maximize voter turnout during a pandemic election.
Some Republicans actions amount to an admission that Trump's rhetoric might be confusing.
In Florida, Republicans have begun encouraging their supporters to vote early in person - an apparent concession to the mistrust of mail balloting Trump has sown.
And a GOP mail piece, sent to voters in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Michigan, quotes part of a July 10 tweet by Trump, in which he wrote: "Absentee Ballots are fine because you have to go through a precise process to get your voting privilege." But the flier blurs out the second part of the tweet: "Not so with Mail-Ins. Rigged Election!!! 20% fraudulent ballots?"
Reed defended the mailer, describing it as "completely in line" with Trump's position, but he declined to address the blurring of the president's tweet. The fliers were paid for by state parties but produced in coordination with Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee that includes the RNC.
Political operatives across the country say banking early and absentee votes is crucial to avoid leaving turnout to chance, including the vagaries of weather on Election Day as well as the potential of an autumn spike in coronavirus infections.
A shift to Election Day voting also costs campaigns money, several operatives said; ballots cast by mail shrink the universe of voters who still need to be persuaded with expensive mail pieces, robocalls and TV ads in the final days of the race.
In some states, Republican leaders who had previously followed Trump's lead in discouraging expanded access to mail balloting are shifting their approach.
In Iowa, the GOP-controlled legislature passed a law earlier this year blocking the secretary of state, Republican Paul Pate, from sending ballot request forms to all registered voters without lawmakers' permission.
But in July, after several Democratic counties in Iowa announced they would send request forms themselves, legislative leaders granted the state permission to do so, as well.
Democrats, meanwhile, believe Trump's rhetoric has given them a potential turnout advantage - but they are also preparing for the possibility that the president is laying the groundwork to contest the results after Nov. 3.
It's possible that the Democratic advantage among absentee votes, and the potential Republican advantage in Election Day voting, will mean that the president will appear ahead that night - only to potentially lose as mail ballots are tallied in subsequent days.
The flood of mail votes could also prompt a barrage of litigation over which ballots should be counted.
"Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later!" Trump tweetedlast week.
On voting issues, Elias, the Democrats' lead tactician said: "Their sole purpose is to mount a cynical effort to undermine the elections and people's confidence in the outcome."
Even after he was widely rebuked last week for floating the idea of delaying the election, Trump did not repudiate the idea. Stephen Miller, the president's senior policy adviser, defended his boss in a Fox News interview, falsely claiming that the identities of voters who cast ballots are not confirmed, allowing noncitizens to vote.
“This will be catastrophic for our nation,” the president said at the White House on Friday. “You’ll see it. I’m always right about things like this.”