By Andy Sullivan and Jarrett Renshaw
(Reuters) - Iowa resident LeAnne Putman-Thomas has watched her country pursue wars, endure recessions and elect its first Black president. Yet the 53-year-old never felt compelled to vote.
That changed this month, when she went to an early voting center to cast a ballot for Democrat Joe Biden - or, more accurately, to vote out Republican incumbent Donald Trump.
"His presidency has ignited something bad that was festering in this country," said the self-employed embroiderer, who lives in Adel, a small town of 5,500 people outside Des Moines. "I want to be part of the solution."
If Biden defeats Trump in the November presidential election, voters like Putman-Thomas could be a big reason why.
Opinion polls and early voting returns indicate that millions of Americans who typically don't participate in elections are coming off the sidelines this year and backing the Democrat by wide margins.
Roughly 7.3 million infrequent and first-time voters had cast their ballots as of Tuesday, according to TargetSmart, a Democratic analytics firm. That's more than two and a half times the number of ballots cast at the same point four years ago, the data show, as states have expanded absentee and early in-person voting options due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
TargetSmart estimates that this group leans Democratic by 16 percentage points.
"If we want to look at it in terms of who has more intensity and where does the advantage lie, it's in these infrequent and first-time voters," said TargetSmart Chief Executive Officer Tom Bonier.
Republicans caution not to read too much into those numbers as this year could also see higher participation rates by white voters without a college degree, a key Trump constituency.
"I would caution against saying this is exclusively a Biden electorate," said Patrick Ruffini, a co-founder of Echelon Insights, a Republican analytics firm.
It's another twist in a precedent-shattering presidential campaign that has already seen more than 35 million people cast ballots with less than two weeks to go before Election Day on Nov 3.
Democratic strategists believe their party has the advantage in mobilizing infrequent voters this year, in part because of Trump's upset victory in 2016. A combined 78,000 votes across three battleground states - Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin - allowed Trump to snatch an Electoral College win over Democrat Hillary Clinton despite losing the popular vote by almost 3 million votes nationwide. The U.S. presidency is clinched by winning a majority of the 538 votes apportioned to the 50 states and Washington D.C. in the Electoral College.
That razor-thin margin has haunted some of those who stayed home, said University of Wisconsin political science professor Barry Burden.
"They feel stunned by what happened four years ago and surprised," Burden said. "And so they are trying to make up for their past sins this time around."
The Trump campaign meanwhile is running an aggressive operation to engage infrequent voters in battleground states. In Pennsylvania, for example, volunteers are going door-to-door to talk with these voters and provide information on how to cast ballots and where. The effort has helped the party gain 200,000 net new registered Republicans since 2016, Pennsylvania voting records show, shrinking a long-time Democratic registration advantage in the state to the lowest level since the 1970s.
A similar push in Florida and North Carolina has likewise eroded Democrats' historic voter registration advantage in those states, official figures show.
"There's just no way the Democrats can spin this. We dominated them when it comes to getting new voters," said a senior campaign official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In an era of political polarization, analysts say infrequent voters across the political spectrum could determine who sits in the White House next January.
Patrick Sebastian, a Republican strategist with the firm Majority Strategies, said both parties are enjoying strong support from their core voters but can’t rely on them alone.
“The party that can best motivate low-propensity voters will likely win the election,” Sebastian said.
OFF THE SIDELINES
Roughly 40% of eligible Americans typically don't vote in U.S. presidential elections. The 2016 matchup between Trump and Clinton fit that pattern.
Americans cast a record 137 million ballots that year, according to University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald. Still, another 100 million eligible adults did not participate.
In surveys, nonvoters cite a variety of reasons, including disinterest in politics, distrust of the U.S. government or a lack of identity documents required in some states to cast ballots.
Some experts predict turnout could be significantly higher this year as Trump's polarizing presidency has galvanized voters across the political spectrum, including millions who stayed home four years ago. McDonald predicts as many as 150 million ballots could be cast in 2020.
Several opinion polls show that irregular voters who are likely to show up this year are backing Biden by wide margins.
An October survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center showed Biden leading Trump by 16 percentage points among those who didn't vote four years ago, double his 8-point lead among those who cast ballots that year.
Likewise, a September poll by the University of Wisconsin Elections Research Center found Biden leading Trump by 27 percentage points among 2016 nonvoters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the three states that handed Trump his unexpected Electoral College win four years ago.
Among such voters is Lori Edmison, 59, of Little Falls, Wisconsin. After supporting Democrat Barack Obama twice, the part-time retail worker said she couldn't muster the enthusiasm to vote for Clinton in 2016 because "I just don't trust her."
Edmison said she's not wild about Biden either, but she has already mailed in her ballot for him, motivated by her disgust with Trump.
"For the most part, I did it just to get Trump out," she said. "He lies about everything, he doesn't care about the small people, only his rich and powerful friends. The list just goes on and on."
In the battleground state of North Carolina, registered Democrats who didn't participate in 2016 have cast more than 167,000 ballots so far, according to a Reuters analysis of state data. That's nearly twice the 94,000 registered Republicans who have voted early after sitting out 2016, and ahead of the 140,000 unaffiliated voters who did the same, the figures show.
Local Democratic officials elsewhere report similar figures.
"We are seeing massive enthusiasm and we are attracting new voters to the table," said Bryce Smith, Democratic Party chairman of Dallas County, Iowa, a county outside Des Moines. He said 14% of the county's registered Democrats who have either voted early or requested a mail ballot didn't vote in 2016.
In South Carolina, 15% of registered Democrats who requested mail ballots though the state party's online portal didn't vote in 2016, according to a party source. In Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, that figure is 21%, according to an official there.
DOOR-KNOCKING AND CAMPAIGN RALLIES
Republicans say those early-voting turnout figures mean little. What counts, they said, is the final tally, and they expect more of their supporters will vote in person on Election Day.
While the coronavirus pandemic has prompted Democrats and nonpartisan groups to scale back in-person voter registration drives, Republicans have pushed ahead with door knocking and face-to-face contacts to gin up enthusiasm from the base, and among those who vote only sporadically or have never cast a ballot.
Majority Strategies, a Republican analytics firm, said in an Oct. 13 report viewed by Reuters that independent voters who have not yet voted in six places - Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska's second congressional district - are more likely to vote Republican than those who have already cast ballots, but they're harder to turn out.
A major draw for these elusive voters are Trump campaign rallies. Around 23% of attendees at an Oct. 13 rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania had never voted, while that figure was 30% for the audience at Sunday's event in Carson City, Nevada, according to a Trump campaign official.
The campaign said it plans to follow up in person with those attendees in coming days. "When we send a voter registration form or a ballot to someone’s house, we are knocking on their door to remind them. That’s the difference, Democrats are not,” the official said.
Others have decided on their own to come off the sidelines. Anita Cripps, 59, of St. Petersburg, Florida, says she plans to vote for Trump on Election Day - which would be her first time voting since 1988. Cripps said she's well aware of his shortcomings: "Everybody knows he's a liar," she said.
Still, she said Trump had handled the pandemic as responsibly as anybody could have. And she's leery of increased government involvement in healthcare, a key plank of the Democratic platform.
"I really got a bad feeling about Biden, I don't like him at all," she said.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington and Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia; Editing by Scott Malone and Marla Dickerson)