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Campaigns are starting earlier than ever -- due, in part, to early voting

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Not so many years ago, it was traditional for political pros to say the presidential campaign begins after Labor Day in September. People don't say that anymore. Campaigns must start sooner. President Biden and former President Trump acknowledged this reality by scheduling a debate for this June 27. And that is the headline for this story. The decisive part of the election is not this fall. It's this summer. It's now. NPR senior political correspondent Domenico Montanaro is tracking the changing political calendar. Domenico, good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's driving the change?

MONTANARO: Well, a big part of that is early voting. I mean, the vast majority of states offer some ability to vote early. Many voters will begin casting ballots just days after the second presidential debate, which is scheduled for September 10. You know, that's a reason that the Biden campaign actually wanted it then. And because of how many people are voting early, the stakes are pretty high to start campaigning, fundraising and advertising earlier than ever. I talked with Mo Elleithee, a veteran of Democratic presidential politics, and here's what he had to say.

MO ELLEITHEE: We don't have election days anymore. We have election month. And it's really forced candidates and campaigns to rethink the cadence of how they campaign, as well as how they allocate resources. So there's no question that if you're waiting for the starting gun to go off on Labor Day, you've already missed half the race.

MONTANARO: Speaking of half, half or more of all votes this year are expected to be cast early.

INSKEEP: Wow. OK, so we already mentioned the earlier debates than ever before. How else is this affecting the campaigns?

MONTANARO: Well, it's having a pretty big impact. I mean, these are two well-known candidates. They're not very well-liked. This is the longest general election in history. And the campaigns are facing a lot of voter malaise, you know? So the campaigns know they need to get voters paying attention and engaged. The Biden campaign in particular are spending millions on ads, door knocking and phone banking, trying to wake people up. Trump's campaign is functioning, I guess we can say, a little bit more lean. And there's a split on the right about the best way to turn out the vote.

INSKEEP: Hasn't Trump himself illustrated that split?

MONTANARO: He has. I mean, he's been a bit all over the place. He's muddied the waters on a lot of this. He made all these false claims after the 2020 election, which courts have proven he lost legitimately. He said falsely that mail-in voting, for example, is a Trojan horse for fraud. Back in February during a rally in Michigan, he encouraged his voters to vote early, but he said this about mail-in voting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Mail-in voting is totally corrupt. Get that through your head.

MONTANARO: OK? But he's done a complete about-face in the past month. Here he was at the end of April in a video he posted to his social media platform.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Absentee voting, early voting and Election Day voting are all good options. Republicans must make a plan. Register and vote.

MONTANARO: All good options, he said. And that's a big change. There's a split, though, among activists as well. There's one group, Turning Point Action, which is vowing to spend tens of millions of dollars to do Republican turnout. But the group put out a video saying it wants to make Republicans day-of voters. That's exactly what veteran Republican strategists say you should not be trying to do. Strategists like Mike Duncan, for example, who's worked on various campaigns, including for Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, he was pretty incensed about this idea. Here he is talking on the "Ruthless" podcast, which he co-hosts.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "RUTHLESS")

MICHAEL DUNCAN: Why cut off your nose to spite your face? It's like, the world exists as it is. And there's absentee by mail. There's early voting. And if we lose those, then we lose. We just lose.

MONTANARO: I mean, trying to turn out everyone on Election Day is risky. That's especially true for Republicans because a big portion of Trump's base are white voters without college degrees, and they're among the least likely to vote.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Domenico, I'm thinking about this early election calendar, the way that everything has been moved up, the way the election is effectively now. And that seems like a special challenge for President Biden's people because they're behind. They're behind by about a point in polling averages. Their assumption, what they express is that they're going to pull ahead once voters start to pay attention, once voters see what their choice is. The calendar means they're running out of time to get voters to pay attention.

MONTANARO: Yeah, I think that's a big piece of it. It's a big piece of why they wanted this debate before the conventions, because there's still this sort of sense out there among a lot of Democratic voters and Republican voters, frankly, that maybe this isn't quite the field that you're seeing, maybe it isn't Biden versus Trump. Or they're hoping that it isn't either of these two men. The reality is it is. And I think that a lot of people just don't want to engage in the election because they feel like they wish they had a different choice. But the Biden campaign in particular feels like they need to get Trump's name, his voice out there and put - you know, show the contrast between the two men for this starkly different vision of the country.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro reporting on the moved-up election. Domenico, thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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