As With Many Things, Republicans Liked Mail-in Voting—Until They Didn’t

In 1982, Tom Bradley had served two full terms as mayor of Los Angeles and was the definitive favorite to replace two-term Governor Jerry Brown, then at the apex of his “Governor Moonbeam” persona and intending to run for the United States Senate. Unlike the flamboyant and high-profile Brown (of the 1970s), Bradley was a consummate shoe-leather politician, a coalition-builder known for making thousands of personal appearances a year all over the city.

For all of 1982, Bradley had polled ahead of his surprise Republican challenger, Attorney General George Deukmejian. Once an obscure State Senator representing the Long Beach area, Deukmejian rode the Proposition 13 wave to victory in the 1978 Attorney General race, then decided to challenge Republican Lieutenant Governor Mike Curb for the right to lead the California GOP ticket in 1982. A music producer known for his close ties to Ronald Reagan, Curb was expected to prevail. But Deukmejian survived a brutal primary campaign–thanks to a series of vicious pre-primary attack ads–to set up his faceoff with Bradley.

As the candidates neared Election Day, Bradley’s once commanding lead flagged. Double-digit leads closed to as narrow as three points. Nevertheless, an October 24 Field Poll put Bradley up 47-41, enough for knowledgable observers to believe Deukmejian would fall short.

On Election Day, the exit polls suggested the narrow Bradley victory most had expected, and as the votes trickled in, some media outlets even called the race for the Democrat. But nobody had taken into account a new quirk in California law. After the 1978 election, California Democrats had sponsored a rule change permitting any voter to request a “no-excuse” absentee ballot. Taking advantage of the new law, the Deukmejian campaign sent every household with a Republican voter an absentee ballot application. Even more remarkably, Republican voters were directed to return completed applications to the Deukmejian campaign, which processed the applications and sent them to the County clerks for processing.

The exit polls couldn’t account for these votes. Bradley won election day voters by approximately 20,000, but Deukmejian captured over 300,000 absentee votes to Bradley’s 180,000. Deukmejian won the 1982 election as a result, then won his 1986 rematch with Bradley by 20 points.1Some observers blamed the 1982 result on a so-called “Bradley Effect,” supposedly reflected in voters telling pollsters that they would vote for Bradley, the African-American candidate, but vote for Deukmejian, the white candidate, in secret. But this article persuasively argues that a late-breaking backlash against a gun-control initiative was enough to doom Bradley. It is also worth noting that Pete Wilson handily defeated Jerry Brown in the Senate race on the same ballot, creating a potential halo effect. And, finally, America spent much of 1981-82 in a Federal Reserve-induced recession designed to control high inflation rates. That recession waned just as the 1982 election cycle heated up, leading to Republicans having a better 1982 than had been expected earlier in the year. Today, such a commanding lead in mail-in balloting would trigger a 50-tweet rant. But in 1982, it was just good tactical politics. Ask the Republicans involved.

Remarkably, California Republicans did it again in 1990, under very similar circumstances. This time, another Long Beach-area Republican, then-Rep. Dan Lungren, ended Election Day down 29,000 votes in his race for Attorney General. Several weeks later, Lungren was declared the winner, the beneficiary of another effective Republican mail-in campaign.

Republicans have been benefitting from “absentee” voting for over a century and a half. In 1864, when Abraham Lincoln faced re-election against the general he had previously dismissed from command over the Union Army, most states adopted laws allowing soldiers to vote from the field. Many did, clinching the election for Lincoln.

Indeed, Republicans have a long history of encouraging tactical voting, and are not in the least interested in voter fraud. Instead, they are concerned that Democrats have learned how to play. In 2010, Kamala Harris survived an extremely competitive statewide race for Attorney General—in the most favorable year to Republicans since 1994—largely on the strength of mail-in ballots. And nearly every California House seat the GOP lost in 2018 saw the Republican candidate leading on Election Day, only to see each lead reverse as late-returned mail-ins swamped the early votes.

This, not fraud, is driving Republican panic about “mail-in” balloting. And the panicker-in-chief, Donald Trump, is willing to undermine America’s entire electoral system merely to draw a specious and nonexistent line between “mail-in” and “absentee” balloting. In return, here is a non-specious observation. Republicans have no principled objection to mail-in voting. They instead object to a high-turnout election.

This is because Republicans have no shortage of bad news. Trump’s re-election was supposed to have been won in the same three states that gave him the presidency in 2016–Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. No more. Now there are a dozen competitive states on the map and, as of today, none of them are named Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin. Trump must instead defend at least half-a-dozen other must-win states, including Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and that citadel of toxic Republicanism itself, Texas.2Not to mention Iowa and the Second Congressional District of Maine. And, let’s go ahead and not mention them.

A candidate in Trump’s position has two options. First, voters can be convinced to change their minds. But voters were far more politically fluid 40 years ago, and that is before Trump spent years honing his base to Ivory soap-level purity. Indeed, the vaunted enthusiasm of Trump supporters is a double-edged sword, as more grounded voters unable to muster death-cult intensity levels find themselves increasingly unable to fit in, or even understand what’s going on.

Second, there is voter turnout, or to be blunt about it, suppression. And yet, even here, Trump has stepped on his own punchline. After months of demonizing mail-in voting, somehow he has managed to convince two-thirds of his own voters to wait until Election Day, then trudge to the polls and dutifully cast their vote in person.

But in the meantime, between now and Election Day, millions of Democratic voters will have already submitted mail-in votes for Joe Biden. This matters. The votes are the only poll that counts, and the electorate is self-selecting. Mail-in voting—which Republican-leaning states like Arizona and Utah had already adopted before the pandemic—gives political campaigns several weeks to engage voters and convince them to complete their ballots. And then once these targeted voters do so—the campaign can move on to other, harder-to-commit voters.

See, it’s not a fraud problem; it’s an information and resource problem. If Biden banks millions of votes more than Trump ahead of Election Day—not through fraud, but merely because Biden’s voters commit and take themselves out of play—Democrats will be able to more effectively use their resources for maximum advantage.

Consider how much information Democrats can obtain from tracking early ballots in key swing states. For example, it is universally believed that Trump must win all five of Ohio, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina if he has any hope of re-election. If Mr. Biden wins any one of them, the election is his. The Biden campaign doesn’t care which of these states it wins, so long as it wins one or more of them. By tracking early ballot submissions, the Biden campaign can make real-time decisions about where it needs to spend resources—undoubtedly, those states where Mr. Biden may be lagging the campaign’s targets. Conversely, it may be able to spare resources in any state or states where Biden’s votes are rolling in ahead of schedule. This is priceless information in an era when data is everything.

Compare this to the Trump campaign, which must execute a nationwide get-out-the-vote Election Day drive to satisfy its petulant master and make up for all this lost time. It will have to do so in the midst of a pandemic; this much is known. But the unknown variables are just as crucial. Trump’s target states are all over the map. An Election Day thunderstorm in any of them could prove ruinous. Political risk also abounds. Biden voters who vote by mail have made their choice. But whatever persuadable Trump voters there are remain persuadable until Election Day, and Trump has fewer and fewer votes to spare. In sum, Biden’s mail-in strategy reduces his risk; Trump’s strategy increases his.

It is always interesting when necessity forces Trump, however briefly, to confront reality. Today’s Crazy Ivan was no different, as he now insists that Florida Republicans—and, hilariously, only Florida Republicans—should submit mail-in ballots. His reasons for singling out Florida were as specious as his reasons for saying anything, and thus unimportant. What is important is that Florida mail-in ballots suddenly became so important to Trump that reality forced him to say the exact opposite of what he has said the last four months. And when something like that grabs and holds Trump’s attention—something that not even a pandemic has proven capable of doing—it’s probably a safe bet that you should be paying attention too.

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