Election Day matters less than it used to. Unless the GOP adapts, it is doomed to keep losing.
Disappointment over the red wave that didn’t happen has led to soul-searching and recriminations among Republicans. Some blame Donald Trump, others Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy. Still others blame the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. Republicans need to craft a new message or better package the old message. Republicans agree that they can turn things around before the 2024 election, but only if Mr. Trump doesn’t run—or only if he does.
But the GOP’s real problem wasn’t its message or the messengers. It was a more basic failure: not understanding or accepting how Americans today participate in elections. Early voting and mail-in balloting have irrevocably changed things. Election Day no longer counts as it once did. Yet Republicans continue to rely on a massive Election Day turnout to prevail, while conceding the rest of the electoral terrain to Democrats. When Democrats win, some Republicans blame election fraud or unfair practices instead of their own failure to adjust their ground game.
In fact, the more that Republicans decry mail-in ballots and early voting, and wish that somehow they could elect governors and state legislators who will bring back the good old days and the old rules, the more they miss an opportunity to seize the new electoral terrain from their opponents. If Republicans don’t recognize the new rules that shape elections, 2024 will be as disappointing as 2022, if not more so.
Forty-six states allow early in-person voting; 27 don’t require voters to justify using an absentee or mail-in ballot. Eight states, including Nevada and Oregon, conduct elections primarily by mail. Twenty-five states, including Florida, New York, and California, allow “ballot harvesting,” in which someone other than the voter hands in absentee or mail-in ballots. According to the Los Angeles Times, this year nearly 46 million voters cast their ballots before Election Day. That’s more than one-third (37%) of the total 122 million votes cast in the 2018 midterms, which was the highest midterm turnout rate since 1914.
TargetSmart, a political-data firm, calculated on Oct. 24 that 55% of those early voters were Democrats, while less than 34.5% were Republicans. In Pennsylvania in 2020, more than half the ballots cast were either mail-in or absentee. This year in Pennsylvania’s crucial Senate and gubernatorial contests, by Nov. 5 Democrats made up more than 80% of voters 18 to 29 who had voted early, while Republicans had barely 15%, with unaffiliated voters at 5%. Overall, the Washington Post estimated that one-third of all votes in the 2022 midterms would be cast early.
Republicans ignore early voting and mail-in balloting at their peril. According to Gallup, from 2010 to 2014 Republicans had the edge in early voting. But in the 2018 midterms, the GOP lead had slipped to 46% compared with 44.7% for Democrats. By the Biden-Trump election, the Democrats had a 54% to 32% advantage over Republicans, with 38% of independents voting before Election Day.
This suggests that Republican early voters, combined with a majority of their independent counterparts, could overwhelm the Democrats—but not if their candidates wait for Election Day to bring home the vote.
What can Republicans do to address the new electoral reality? First, make mail-in balloting an opportunity to flood the zone with sample ballots for registered voters. In Nevada, for example, every registered voter gets a mail-in ballot. Why not send a sample ballot to each a day or two earlier, with the GOP choices clearly marked and highlighted? Mail-in voting can be a powerful messaging opportunity. So can ballot harvesting, with GOP precinct workers gathering properly marked ballots from friends and neighbors.
Second, don’t wait for televised debates or TV ads to turn the tide in the election’s final days. The Pennsylvania Senate debate between Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman should have exposed the folly of this 1960s-style campaign strategy. Instead, the decisive platform for delivering messages is social media, operating in a longer time frame that fits with Americans’ new voting habits.
Richard Nixonshowed in 1968 how to use television to win elections by answering callers’ questions in a telethon. The next Republican president will be the one who understands how to use social media—not to berate and belittle opponents, let alone to discourage early voting as Mr. Trump did this cycle, but to build a compelling conservative narrative over the expanded timeline for voting.
Finally, after the 2008 election Republicans set up a GOP Data Center, with information about voters’ habits and where they live. This trove could be used to create a new strategy for mobilizing traditional Republican voters with early-voting initiatives.
Republicans have been reluctant to abandon the traditions and mystique of Election Day. They should heed the wisdom of the French general who summed up the Charge of the Light Brigade: “It is magnificent, but it is not war.” Republican reliance on Election Day turnout is magnificent, but it isn’t politics in today’s America.
Mr. Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Appeared in the December 2, 2022, print edition as ‘The GOP Needs to Embrace Early Voting’.