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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — President Donald Trump and other Republicans will head into Election Day likely trailing by tens of thousands of votes in Iowa, a deficit they hope to overcome with a strong turnout of their supporters at polling places.
By Saturday, 62% of active registered Democrats in Iowa and 43% of Republicans had returned absentee ballots as part of a record-setting early vote in the state.
That means 123,000 more Democrats had voted than Republicans, an advantage far higher than the party enjoyed in 2016 or 2012 in absentee voting. But it also means the remaining electorate Tuesday will be smaller than unusual, tilt toward the GOP and feature a plurality of voters who aren’t registered to either party.
Trump won 208,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton on Election Day in Iowa in 2016, nearly 57% percent of ballots cast that day. He won the state by about 147,000 votes after Clinton carried the early vote.
Given the stronger early vote totals this year among Democrats, Republicans may need a similar performance for Trump to carry the state’s six electoral votes and U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst to win re-election. They will have to do so with fewer Election Day voters expected and amid a raging coronavirus pandemic that has become a concern for some poll workers and voters.
Conservative activist Tammy Kobza said she doesn’t believe that will be a problem, noting the forecast of sunny, warm weather.
“I think it’s going to be a nice day and I think it’s going to be a huge turnout for Trump,” said Kobza, who voted early this week in the Republican stronghold of Sioux County in northwest Iowa. “Conservative people like to go to the polls. That’s just how it is.”
Trump carried 81% of Sioux County’s vote in 2016, and Kobza said she sees more enthusiasm for his candidacy this year.
In all, a record 924,533 voters statewide had returned their absentee ballots by mail, dropped them off at an auditor’s office or voted early in person by Saturday. That is 235,000 more than the previous absentee record set in 2012, when Barack Obama carried Iowa on his way to reelection.
Auditors were beginning Saturday to process the crush of absentee ballots, and they can begin tabulating them Monday. County officials say that, barring something unexpected, they should already be counted by the time polls close at 9 p.m.
Bryce Smith, chairman of the Democratic party in Dallas County, said he’s seeing positive signs for Joe Biden, Ernst challenger Theresa Greenfield and other Democrats in the fast-growing suburbs west of Des Moines. He said more than 1,500 county Democrats who didn’t vote in 2016 have already done so this year.
The number who voted early will make it easier for volunteers to focus on convincing remaining Democrats to return outstanding absentee ballots or get to the polls on Election Day, he said.
“I truly believe that if Dallas County is painted blue on election night, the Senate and White House are going to flip,” he said of the county, where Trump defeated Clinton in 2016.
Democrats are also hoping to protect their 3-1 margin in Iowa’s congressional delegation.
Statewide, turnout is expected to exceed the 1.58 million from 2016, which was nearly 73% of registered voters. This year, a 75% turnout would mean an electorate of about 1.66 million.
About 1,200 polling places will be open, compared to 1,450 in the 2018 election, after counties closed and consolidated some locations because of health and budget concerns. State officials are urging voters to check their polling place locations — many of which may have moved — online at Voterready.iowa.gov.
The election will also be the first presidential race since the passage of Iowa’s 2017 voter identification law. Voters must show their driver’s license or another accepted form of identification in order to vote.
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said that he expects a busy day at the polls despite the record number of absentee voters. He said his office was working to keep polling places safe from coronavirus by distributing 145,000 gloves, 200,000 masks and 11,000 social distancing markers for use by voters and poll workers.
In addition, representatives of state and federal law enforcement agencies will monitor the election at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston and be prepared to respond to any incident that disrupts voting.
The concerns include any foreign or domestic disinformation campaigns, any physical intimidation or threats at polling places and any attempts to hack voter registration or other computer systems.
“The integrity of the vote and the safety of the voters are my top priority,” Pate said. “The vote must be protected and we’re committing vast resources to ensure that happens.”