In final stretch, Biden camp seeks voters who stayed home in 2016

By Annie Linskey,

Joe Biden’s team is making a special push in the closing days of the presidential campaign to find and motivate Democrats who voted in 2012 but stayed home in 2016, hoping he gets a crucial boost from this inconsistent group of supporters.

“They’re being very strategic,” said Donna Brazile, a Biden ally and former head of the Democratic National Committee, who said the campaign has asked her to focus on these voters. “More strategic than the Clinton campaign was in 2016.”

The effort reflects a broader reality for Democrats: Many of the voters who were energized to come to the polls for Barack Obama did not turn out for Hillary Clinton, contributing heavily to her loss. Now the party wants to do all it can to ensure that this year’s election resembles those earlier years more than 2016.

“You have to go back to those states and grab those people — they’re the easy catch,” Brazile said. She noted that they already cast a ballot for Biden when he was Obama’s running mate.

Only a handful of undecided voters remain in the final stretch of an election that has electrified people on both sides. That is prompting both campaigns to redouble their efforts to find any remaining voters they can still mobilize.

Biden’s effort includes digital targeting, phone calls and, in some places, in-person visits. Becca Siegel, the campaign’s chief analytics officer, said that because many reliable Biden voters have already cast their ballots early, the campaign is freer to focus on less likely voters, something it has been doing particularly in the past two weeks.

“We can turn our attention to the lower-and-lower-propensity voters,” Siegel said.

By the end of September, requests for absentee ballots had already surpassed 2016 levels in nearly every state, according to a Washington Post analysis. In many swing states, surveys show that the early ballots have favored Democrats, although Republicans have narrowed the gap in some places in recent days.

More than 70 million ballots have been cast so far this year, and the data suggests there is only a limited number of 2012 voters who are still sitting on the sidelines. But in a race that could be close, even small groups of voters could sway the outcome.

In battleground states, White non-college-educated voters — a group that buoyed Trump in 2016 — are about 16.5 million votes behind their 2016 total turnout, according to data complied by Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic voting data firm.

In contrast, White college-educated voters and voters of color, who tend to be part of Biden’s coalition, are collectively only 7.4 million behind their 2016 turnout.

“There were voters who stayed home in 2016 for a variety of reasons, but for the most part those reasons have been remedied,” Bonier said, noting that some voting restrictions have been eased and that Democrats are less complacent this time.

Trump’s campaign contends that huge chunks of his voters are prepared to cast ballots on Election Day, which it says will allow them to surpass the Democrats.

The Trump campaign asserts that a good number of the president’s supporters also stayed home in 2016, even though he managed to pull off a win.

His reelection team has put much of its grass-roots organizing effort — estimated to cost more than $250 million — into finding and mobilizing Trump supporters who did not vote last time, with large voter registration pushes in states including Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Florida.

The president’s large rallies play into that strategy, the campaign says.

“Usually about 30 percent of the people who register for the rallies are not Republican, and a similar percentage are people who did not vote in 2016,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. And after each rally, Trump campaign volunteers or staff members reach out to those voters to encourage them to go to the polls.

While Biden’s team is not holding big rallies because of the pandemic, it is deploying top surrogates such as former president Barack Obama to talk to voters who sat out in 2016, including Black voters and young voters, according to the campaign.

Part of Obama’s message is aimed at voters who supported him in the past but have lost their enthusiasm because the country did not change as much as they had hoped.

“If we don’t get a hundred percent — we just get 50 percent of what we want — then that’s good,” Obama told voters in Florida recently. “And then we keep on going, we vote some more, and then we get more done.”

Obama is set to have his first joint appearance on the campaign trail with Biden on Saturday in Michigan. He has already made stops in Florida and Pennsylvania.

Though the specific effort to turn out 2012 voters is relatively recent for Biden’s team, the campaign has been making an effort since the summer to tailor a message to lower-frequency voters, said Celinda Lake, a pollster for the campaign.

Lake found that many of those voters were unaware of Biden’s views on climate change, his support for the Black Lives Matter movement and his economic proposals.

In his closing ads, Biden has hit on some of those themes. “This is Joe Biden. Black lives matter. Period. I’m not afraid to say it,” the former vice president says, looking straight into the camera during one spot released Tuesday.

Another ad that has been particularly effective with the group, Lake said, features a group of Black men chatting in barber shop.

“I’m not going to agree with everything that anyone says,” a man identified as Nate says in the spot. “But who do I trust my children’s future to? I trust Joe Biden more than anyone else.”

Michael Scherer contributed to this report.

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