People make their way to cast absentee ballots inside the Northwest Activities Center during early voting in Detroit on Oct. 15. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

In the final frenzy before Election Day, with millions of votes already cast, both presidential campaigns are bearing down to turn out a key group: people who did not vote in 2016.

There are nearly 20 million of them in the six most important battleground states, according to a Washington Post analysis of demographic and voting data. Getting them to the polls could swing the election.

President Trump won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2016 by a fraction of a percentage point, and the other three states by only slightly more.

Nonvoters

2016 voters

Trump’s winning margin

Wisconsin

1.4M

3M

Trump won

by 23K

Arizona

2.6M

2.6M

91K

North Carolina

3M

4.7M

173K

Michigan

2.8M

4.8M

11K

Pennsylvania

3.6M

6.2M

44K

Florida

6.1M

9.4M

113K

Note: Figures based on 2016 turnout and

2020 population estimates

2016 voters

Nonvoters

Trump’s winning margin

Wisconsin

Michigan

1.4M

3M

2.8M

4.8M

Trump won

by 23K

11K

Arizona

Pennsylvania

2.6M

2.6M

3.6M

6.2M

91K

44K

North Carolina

3M

4.7M

Florida

173K

6.1M

9.4M

113K

Note: Figures based on 2016 turnout and 2020 population estimates

2016 voters

Nonvoters

Trump’s winning margin

Wisconsin

Pennsylvania

Michigan

3M

4.8M

3.6M

6.2M

1.4M

2.8M

Trump won

by 23K

11K

44K

North Carolina

Arizona

Florida

2.6M

2.6M

3M

4.7M

9.4M

6.1M

91K

173K

113K

Note: Figures based on 2016 turnout and 2020 population estimates

2016 voters

Nonvoters

Trump’s winning margin

Wisconsin

Michigan

Pennsylvania

1.4M

3M

2.8M

4.8M

3.6M

6.2M

Trump won

by 23K

11K

44K

Arizona

North Carolina

Florida

2.6M

2.6M

3M

4.7M

6.1M

9.4M

91K

173K

113K

Note: Figures based on 2016 turnout and 2020 population estimates

2016 voters

Nonvoters

Trump’s winning margin

Florida

Wisconsin

Arizona

North Carolina

Michigan

Pennsylvania

6.1M

9.4M

3M

4.7M

3.6M

6.2M

2.6M

2.6M

2.8M

4.8M

1.4M

3M

91K

Trump won

by 23K

11K

173K

44K

113K

Note: Figures based on 2016 turnout and 2020 population estimates

As candidates and their surrogates dash around battleground states to greet cheering crowds, there’s another contest aimed at finding supporters less likely to show up.

“This is not a persuasion campaign,” Joe Gruters, state GOP chairman in Florida, said. “This is a turnout campaign.”

Republicans in Florida have gone person by person, identifying and recruiting possible supporters through personal and social media contacts and other research, producing a net gain of 200,000 voter registrations in the state. “We’re going after everybody who we think might be friendly” to President Trump, Gruters said.

Becca Siegel, chief analytics officer for the Biden campaign, said the campaign is targeting infrequent voters more than Democrats did in past election cycles. “Some of the most persuadable voters are nonvoters,” Siegel said.


Women watch from a window as former president Barack Obama makes a stop while campaigning in Philadelphia on Oct. 21. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Why don’t people vote? The answer is a mix of sometimes conflicting reasons, beliefs and motivations. While most Americans say voting is a civic responsibility, they do not always follow through. People who don’t see a benefit to themselves, don’t identify with a candidate or who believe the candidates to be the same may not believe their vote will make a difference that’s worth their effort, said William Hicks, a political science professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. They may be discouraged by negative messages about candidates.

But their minds can change.

“I’ve never voted in the election — and I’m 71 — until this year,” said John Casto, of Mesick, Mich., who voted early. “I’ll tell you what turned me off more than anything. I was in Vietnam ’69 and ’70, and I came home, and I wasn’t treated well. That soured me on politics.”

Top reasons for not voting in the last three U.S. presidential elections

2008

2012

2016

25%

Too busy,

conflict

19%

Illness or

disability

16%

16%

Not interested

15%

15%

Didn’t like

candidates

14%

12%

Out of town

10%

8%

Top reasons for not voting in the last three U.S. presidential elections

2008

2012

2016

25%

Too busy, conflict

19%

Illness or disability

16%

16%

Not interested

15%

15%

Didn’t like candidates

14%

12%

Out of town

10%

8%

But the pandemic, he said, got his attention. “The only reason I’m voting this year is because of Trump. With the covid-19, I don’t think he cares about it. I just want somebody in there who cares a little about the people.”

The usual top reasons people give for not voting are that they were too busy, ill or disabled, or not interested, according to Census Bureau surveys. A new reason vaulted to the top of the list for the first time in 2016: Didn’t like candidates or issues.

Those reasons may also mask a more fundamental one: They aren’t sure how to correctly navigate the complicated process of registration and casting a ballot. Persuading them requires precise targeting and personal contacts.

In Arizona, immigration attorney Yasser Sanchez has used Spanish radio, billboards, giveaways and events such as car parades to encourage registration and votes for Biden among the state’s million potential voters who are Hispanic. They represent almost a quarter of all eligible voters, but their turnout has lagged more than 20 percentage points behind non-Hispanic Whites.

“The thing about Latinos is that they have to see the visual of people campaigning,” said Sanchez, who is independent of the Biden campaign. “A simple commercial is not enough … It’s not hard to motivate people once you show them how easy it is to register to vote.”


A sign points the way to an early voting location in Phoenix on Oct. 16. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Data collection has allowed campaigns to identify which potential voters need what kind of attention. Danielle Alvarez, a regional communications director for Trump Victory, said their analytics can pinpoint individuals “with near-surgical precision. This is not a guessing game for us.”

“Pre-pandemic, we might have tried to target you at an event,” Alvarez said. “Post-pandemic, we would utilize our tech tools, whether it’s digital targeting or text-message targeting, and see if you respond. And then if you respond, we’re going to call you, and then we’re going to visit you in person, and we’re just going to keep talking to you and move you down that pipeline to engage and … take action.”

The Biden campaign’s Siegel said that since nonvoters may not be as immersed in the latest issues, it’s important to provide messages about why to support the candidate. “It protects them from defection to Trump or to nonvoting,” Siegel said. “People don’t need more information on who Trump is.”


A board of election notices and voter registration signage at a drive-thru early voting site in the City Hall parking lot in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, U.S., October 23, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan (Bing Guan/Reuters)

Who are the new voters the candidates need?

To win a second term, Trump needs a turnout surge among White voters, especially those without college degrees, to make up for predicted losses elsewhere. His 2016 win was critically boosted by higher turnout than in 2012 by non-college Whites, especially a five percentage point increase in Florida and almost four points in Pennsylvania.

Biden hopes for more Black voters, his strongest group of supporters. Four years ago, their turnout fell short of Obama-era surges in these six closest battleground states, sealing Clinton’s 456,000-vote loss there in 2016. There are large pools of nonvoters in both groups in the six states, according The Post analysis. Although the number of non-college Whites is shrinking, that demographic still includes about 9 million who didn’t vote last time. There are about 2 million eligible Black voters, and about 500,000 sat out the 2016 election compared to 2012.

The six core battlegrounds have millions of Black nonvoters and White nonvoters without college degrees

White non-college

Black

Nonvoters

Voters

2M

3.5M

9.7M

13.9M

Turnout rates since 2008 for these groups in the same states

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

Black, general

74%

64%

58%

54%

60%

White non-college, general

Black, midterm

46%

43%

37%

White non-college, midterm

The six core battlegrounds have millions of Black nonvoters and White nonvoters without college degrees

White non-college

Black

Nonvoters

Voters

9.7M

13.9M

2M

3.5M

Turnout rates since 2008 for these groups in the same states

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

Black, general

74%

64%

58%

54%

60%

White non-college, general

Black, midterm

46%

43%

37%

White non-college, midterm

Turnout rates since 2008 for these groups in the same states

The six core battlegrounds have millions of Black nonvoters and White nonvoters without college degrees

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

Black, general

74%

White non-college

64%

Black

58%

Nonvoters

Voters

9.7M

13.9M

54%

60%

2M

3.5M

White non-college, general

Black, midterm

46%

43%

37%

White non-college, midterm

The estimated number of nonvoters cited in this report represents the difference between estimates of adults eligible to vote and the number of votes cast in the 2016 presidential election. So new voters, such as those who have reached voting age or moved into the state, also are included in the number to target in battleground states.

Perhaps the most elusive targets are younger potential voters. They’re harder to contact because they move frequently, and the 18-to-29-year-old group is the least likely to vote. This year, there are millions eligible to vote for the first time.

To reach them, the Biden campaign is engaging in online spaces where young people live and talk. Four of Biden’s grandchildren have hosted chats with Instagram influencers about getting out the vote. Biden has done online conversations with soccer star Megan Rapinoe, actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and rapper Cardi B.

Then there’s the “Biden HQ” island that the campaign launched in the popular online video game, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”


Prisi Hernandez, left, and Laura Hernandez, both with the organization Siembra NC, help Nery Ocampo, 19, center, to register to vote, as Irvin Bahena, 10, stops to watch from his bicycle in Burlington, N.C., on March 11. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Republicans are targeting libertarian-leaning students on college campuses, Wisconsin GOP Chairman Andrew Hitt said, as well as young non-college adults in rural areas at gun shows, tractor pulls, car race tracks and sports events, with a focus on topics such as gun rights and personal freedom.

“The group that’s not on a college campus is a heck of a lot harder to target,” Hitt said. ” But that’s where you have to have a very good data program; you have to have a very good voter identification program … It’s identifying the voters, then going back to them to turn them out.”

The six core battlegrounds have millions of older voters and young nonvoters

Age 18-29

Age 65 up

Nonvoters

Voters

5.6M

4.4M

3.1M

7.8M

Turnout rates for these groups in the same states over the past six elections

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

75%

Age 65+, general

71%

69%

Age 65+, midterm

60%

53%

44%

Age 18-29, general

31%

21%

Age 18-29, midterm

The six core battlegrounds have millions of older voters and young nonvoters

Age 18-29

Age 65 up

Nonvoters

Voters

7.8M

5.6M

4.4M

3.1M

Turnout rates for these groups in the same states over the past six elections

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

75%

Age 65+, general

71%

69%

Age 65+, midterm

60%

53%

Age 18-29, general

44%

31%

21%

Age 18-29, midterm

Turnout rates for these groups in the same states over the past six elections

The six core battlegrounds have millions of older voters and young nonvoters

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

75%

Age 65+, general

Age 18-29

Age 65 up

71%

69%

Age 65+, midterm

60%

Nonvoters

Voters

5.6M

4.4M

3.1M

7.8M

53%

44%

Age 18-29, general

31%

21%

Age 18-29, midterm

In the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs where Clinton won four years ago while narrowly losing statewide, the group Turn PA Blue is seeking women who voted only occasionally in the past. Women already vote in greater numbers and at a higher rate than men, and they favored Clinton across battlegrounds in 2016. Men went for Trump by double-digits.

“If you told me in 2018 that we were going to be going against Trump relying on phone banks, I would’ve laughed in your face,” Jamie Perrapato, Turn PA Blue’s executive director, said. “But they’re totally working … People are answering the phone, and they want to talk.”

They talk about covid-19, how the virus affects schools, and how to use the state’s new voting machines or vote by mail, she said.

The closest of Trump’s flips in 2016 was Michigan, where he won by 11,000 votes out of 4.8 million.

Lavora Barnes, who chairs Michigan Democrats, said workers are reaching out to lapsed, first-time or potential voters statewide to make sure people know how to vote and take advantage of expanded absentee voting.


Kyle Whitney, center right, speaks to another staffer after testing a voting scanner and tabulator at a polling station in Marquette, Mich., on Oct. 20. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Democrats have been seeking Michigan’s Hispanic and Asian potential voters with virtual bus tours. “We build it the way we would have built a bus tour, except there is no bus,” Barnes said. “We bring speakers in to present and talk to folks, and we invite people from various communities to join us on these calls as though we would have had a rally around a bus.”

Just to the west in Wisconsin, Republicans opened the party’s first field office in Milwaukee to woo urban nonvoters. The party also created a regular hour-long show on a Black radio station and, for the first time, sponsored an NAACP debate.

“You need to meet people where they are,” said Hitt, the state GOP head. “You need to be part of the community; you need to be part of experiencing it, and being able to interact with the community in order to understand: What issues do they care about?”

In Florida, where the last GOP wins for president and U.S. Senate and governor were all decided by less than one percentage point, both campaigns are targeting the state’s 1.7 million nonvoters who are Hispanic

That’s especially true in central Florida, where Puerto Ricans are highly concentrated and Spanish language radio ads are in Puerto Rican accents. Both Trump and Biden have announced recovery initiatives for the island. Trump, both running mates, former president Barack Obama and others have campaigned in Orlando. Both campaigns have mobilized Puerto Ricans on the island who can’t vote for president to influence those who can, many of whom moved to Florida after 2017′s hurricane damage.

Hispanic nonvoters in Florida and Arizona outnumber those who voted in 2016

Hispanics

in Arizona

Hispanics

in Florida

Nonvoters

Voters

900K

500K

1.7M

1.7M

Turnout rates for this group in the same states over the past six elections

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

Florida, general

59%

55%

Arizona, general

30%

42%

42%

Florida, midterm

35%

34%

30%

Arizona, midterm

Hispanic nonvoters in Florida and Arizona outnumber those who voted in 2016

Hispanics

in Arizona

Hispanics

in Florida

Nonvoters

Voters

900K

500K

1.7M

1.7M

Turnout rates for this group in the same states over the past six elections

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

Florida, general

59%

55%

Arizona, general

30%

42%

42%

Florida, midterm

35%

34%

30%

Arizona, midterm

Turnout rates for this group in the same states over the past six elections

Hispanic nonvoters in Florida and Arizona outnumber those who voted in 2016

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

Florida, general

Hispanics

in Arizona

Hispanics

in Florida

59%

55%

Nonvoters

Voters

Arizona, general

900K

500K

1.7M

1.7M

30%

42%

42%

Florida, midterm

35%

34%

30%

Arizona, midterm

“I think when I can communicate with someone that went to Florida after Hurricane Maria, and I can talk to them about my own experience in Hurricane Maria. I can connect with them on a level that others can’t,” said Steven Ramos, president of the College Democrats at the University of Puerto Rico. The phone bank he runs has reached tens of thousands of newly settled Puerto Ricans in the Orlando area. “Sometimes they miss the island, they miss our accent, they miss speaking Spanish, so we can communicate to these voters on a deeply personal level.”

Joshua Scacco, a University of South Florida professor who studies include how political campaigns communicate, said central Florida Hispanics also are being targeted by negative messages. Some invoke socialism and authoritarian rulers in Central American countries. Scacco said disinformation campaigns via advertising and Internet messages often promote conspiracy theories and appear designed to discourage Hispanics “who might be flirting with voting for Biden.”


Calvin Williams, 28, a felon who is not eligible to vote in this election, talks with Nia Washington while canvassing for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to urge people to vote Oct. 28. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

North Carolina’s Catawba County is typical of a battleground community with nonvoters sought by both campaigns. A manufacturing hub that hasn’t backed a Democrat for president since Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, the county is home to tens of thousands of Whites who didn’t vote last time and could add to Trump’s base. And the thousands of Blacks who didn’t vote before could pad Democratic totals in bigger cities.

To Toni Abernathy, a Hickory, N.C., educator, ambivalence about the candidates and whether their votes mattered led voters to stay home last time. “Oh well, she’s going to win,” Abernathy said the thinking went, “so there’s no reason for me to show up.”

“I feel like more people are going to turn out and vote this year, because of the protests,” said Abernathy, a Black Democrat, who points to better participation than she expected in recent local events to mark Juneteenth and the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as to protest the death of George Floyd.

Of course, the same protests that motivate Black people can also help motivate new voters for Trump from among those who disagree with Black Lives Matter, just as Trump’s rhetoric can inspire opponents as well as his base.

Jenna Foster, a student at Hickory’s Lenoir-Rhyne University, said young conservatives may turn out even if they don’t broadcast their enthusiasm.

“I feel like people are afraid to express their personal opinion if it’s not in line with other people,” said Foster, who describes herself as “a Republican on a more liberal campus.” She said motivations to vote include protests, riots, social media threads and even encouragement from employers. Foster added: “I think people will still vote; they won’t tell people.”

Michael Roper, a Hickory marketing executive who has managed local Republican campaigns, said converting nonvoters means building emotion and passion with issues like law and order to energize voters who didn’t "show up for Romney,” referring to 2012 candidate Mitt Romney, now a Utah senator and a Trump critic. “Rather than fight for that undecided voter,” Roper said, “it’s better to fight for your own base.”

This year, mail and ballot security, the coronavirus and intimidation have joined logistics like work schedules and transportation issues as other reasons people give for not voting. Despite that, overall turnout is widely expected to reach record highs.

Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who heads the U.S. Elections Project, predicts that about 150 million Americans are likely to vote in this general election, a range that could hit the highest rate of voting since 1908.

The signs include the record turnout for the 2018, the highest for a nonpresidential election since 1912, according to data compiled by McDonald, as well as this month’s record waves of early voters. Some states have received early ballots that approach or exceed 2016′s total election votes.

But a record turnout would just have to be better than the 60.1 percent of the eligible population that voted in 2016.

Nicole, 28, lives in central Florida and didn’t want her last name used because her nonvoting is a sensitive subject in her family. She would seem to be a potential target for both campaigns: the child of staunch Republicans, the spouse of an immigrant, a young voter in a swing state. She said voting wasn’t a priority when she was 18, and as she got older, the barrage of conflicting information paralyzed her.

“The amount of work that I feel like I would need to do to make myself an informed voter seems overwhelming at times,” she said. “What If I am the one voter who causes it to go one way or another, and I did it on a whim?” But this election, amid a pandemic and an up-and-down economy, seems unusually important to her. “Decisions by our current candidates can affect my life more significantly than in other years,” she said, and she registered for the first time.

She hasn’t decided how she will vote — or if she will vote. And so far, she hasn’t heard from either campaign.

Data from the Current Population Survey via IPUMS CPS, U.S. Elections project, Federal Election Commission, and Cooperative Congressional Election Study.