How the Trump Campaign Pushes Voting by Mail on Facebook

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“President Trump needs you to request your ballot,” say dozens of new ads that began running last week. “This is the Election of our LIFETIME.”

The seemingly divergent messaging in Mr. Trump’s digital apparatus underscores the threat he may be posing to his own campaign: As he attacks mail-in voting, he could also be hampering his own supporters’ enthusiasm for embracing the method, which will be critical for voters who want to avoid going to the polls on Election Day because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Critics say Mr. Trump is trying to undermine voting by mail in part because he wants to sow doubt about the election and lay the groundwork for questioning the outcome should he lose.

The Trump campaign said Tuesday that the president opposed “universal mail-in voting systems,” in which states automatically mail ballots to all voters, but supported “traditional absentee vote-by-mail systems,” in which voters must proactively request ballots themselves.

But while broader mail-in voting has led to delayed results in some states this year, and some voters have had their ballots rejected, often because they were not postmarked in time, there has been no evidence of widespread fraud or criminal malfeasance. Cases of fraud have been exceptionally rare in states that have conducted elections primarily by mail for years.

By running ads on Facebook, the Trump campaign can target its message in favor of absentee voting more directly to its own supporters, without drawing as much public attention as a campaign speech or television ad might.

Facebook is also an essential tool in what’s known as a “ballot chase,” when campaigns target ads toward supporters who they know haven’t requested their ballots yet, and then follow up with ads aimed at those who haven’t returned their ballots.

Though numerous studies have found that voting by mail does not favor either party, ballot requests from Democratic voters have outpaced requests from Republicans in some key battleground states. In North Carolina, for example, registered Democrats requested 53 percent of the absentee ballots, while only 15 percent of requests came from Republican voters, according to a study by Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., that was first reported in The Wall Street Journal.

Some supporters of Mr. Trump have taken his opposition to voting by mail to the extreme, with a group in Michigan burning their state-mailed absentee ballot request forms in protest.

A gap in mail-in ballot requests between Republicans and Democrats could be critical in November. And so, while the president has continued to rail against the practice, the Trump campaign has concurrently maintained an ad presence boosting mail-in voting for months. The campaign has run roughly 3,800 ads on Facebook since 2018 telling its supporters to “request your ballot,” according to Facebook’s ad database.

Some have been specifically tailored to battleground states. In Florida, the campaign ran a slew of ads featuring the president’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, who both encourages Floridians to request a ballot and takes issue with the process of mailing ballots out to every registered voter — as California, Nevada, New Jersey and Vermont plan to do this election for the first time, along with five other states that already had the practice.

That nuance is still often lost in the president’s diatribes against voting by mail.

But while Mr. Trump’s support for absentee balloting may seem contradictory, some ads appear intended to align it with his other campaign messaging. They feature the text “President Trump wants you to request your ballot” alongside a photograph of him standing next to the border wall.

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As part of its outreach to Gen Z voters, the Biden campaign ran two new ads during the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night. One of the ads featured an original song, and a new hashtag that the campaign is pushing to try to engage younger voters and portray some youthful confidence: #TheNewAdministration.

The message: It’s a new sound with a familiar message. Using a new song created by the music producer Kosine, the ad flashes familiar Biden campaign mantras like “build back better” and themes like “justice and peace” on the screen. Scenes from the campaign trail of Mr. Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, click by in tempo with the beat. The final third of the song is filled with a simple plea, one that the campaign hopes sticks with younger voters who tend to vote in lower numbers than most other age groups: “Biden, let’s vote, vote, vote. Harris, let’s vote, vote, vote.”

The takeaway: The ad immediately commands attention for simply being different: It’s not a grim-sounding narrator or a well-practiced candidate, but a syncopated beat and rhythmic lyrics. In a campaign that has featured some powerful yet fairly traditional audio tactics for messaging, the use of a new song could help the Biden campaign turn on the voters who tune out as soon as they recognize the telltale signs of a political ad. Young voters in particular were a voting bloc that was relatively elusive for Mr. Biden in the Democratic primary.

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