The North Carolina Republican Party spent $213,000 on glossy mailers sent out in August to voters believed to be supporters of President Trump.
“Urgent Notice,” the mailers warned, alongside a photo of the president. On the flip side, voters found a tear-off application for an absentee ballot.
“Are you going to let the Democrats silence you?” the mailers asked, urging Republicans to fill out the application and send it in to obtain a mail-in ballot.
Similar appeals have flooded mailboxes in Georgia, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin and other battleground states, part of a multimillion-dollar effort by state Republican parties to promote absentee voting, reinforced by text-message blasts and robocalls from Mr. Trump’s campaign and its surrogates.
Yet those efforts may have been undercut by Mr. Trump himself, whose repeated assertions that the mail-in voting is rigged, including several focusing on North Carolina, may have scared away his own supporters. His messaging could be one reason Republicans lag far behind Democrats in requesting mail ballots in North Carolina and elsewhere, experts said.
“It’s unbelievable and obviously at cross purposes with maximizing the Republican vote,” said Bill Weld, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts who challenged Mr. Trump for the Republican nomination this year. “The president is definitely inflicting a leak below the water line.”
Historically, Republicans led in efforts to capture absentee votes, devising a program to identify Republicans who might vote by mail, particularly in Florida, and make sure they sent in their ballots, according to Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican operative.
“It was something that we Republicans felt we did better than the Democrats did,” said Mr. Stevens, recalling a National Republican Senatorial Committee operation that began in the 1980s. “And it’s been kind of a crown jewel of the Republican operation.”
Mr. Stevens, author of a recent book critical of both Mr. Trump and the party, said the president might be sabotaging his own campaign.
“If Trump loses this election it could very well be because he attacked vote by mail,” said Mr. Stevens, who believes the president’s comments have been particularly confusing to older voters, a core Republican constituency that also fears contracting the coronavirus.
“The double irony is, who is more nervous about voting in person? Older voters, because, geez, they might die,” Mr. Stevens said. “If Trump doesn’t win older voters, there’s no path to victory for him in this race. He’s specifically suppressing Republican senior votes.”
So far this year, Republicans are well behind Democrats in applying for mail ballots, several experts said.
“There is a very clear trend in many key states in which Democrats — either registered Democrats or voters that political pros model as Democratic voters — are requesting mail-in ballots at a significantly higher clip than Republicans,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
A running tally by J. Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College in North Carolina, found that Democrats in the state had requested nearly three times as many absentee ballots as Republicans.
As of Sept. 17, according to his analysis, 889,000 ballots had been requested; of those, 448,000 requests were from registered Democrats and 154,000 from registered Republicans. (The rest were either unaffiliated voters or members of other parties.)
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in August found that nearly half of supporters of Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee, planned to use mail votes, while 66 percent of Mr. Trump’s supporters said they intended to vote in person.
Dr. Bitzer said he believed the Republicans’ “return on investment” from its absentee mail campaign might be diminished by what he calls Mr. Trump’s “mixed messaging” on mail voting.
While issuing seething attacks on mail voting this year, Mr. Trump has at times seemed to halfheartedly embrace it, only to backtrack, possibly adding to voter confusion.
North Carolinians have been a particular target of the president’s head-spinning comments over the past several months as he has alternately praised and criticized mail voting in the state.
On Thursday, the day before he urged Minnesota voters to order absentee ballots in a tweet, he had tweeted “rigged election” after it was disclosed that some voters in Mecklenburg County, N.C., who had requested them accidentally received two ballots.
During a trip in early September to Wilmington, N.C., Mr. Trump advised people to vote absentee, then go to the polls to vote, in an effort, he said, to check the integrity of the system, which is designed to prevent double voting.
Elections officials across the country criticized that comment as threatening to wreak havoc on a mail voting system that has been beefed up for the express purpose of keeping as many people as possible away from the polls during the coronavirus pandemic. They also pointed out that intentionally voting twice is illegal.
In a virtual rally with North Carolina supporters in August, Mr. Trump urged them to vote absentee, but added that they should “watch that other people aren’t cheating, because that’s what they’re looking to do.”
Some voters, citing Mr. Trump’s statements against mail voting, expressed concerns about whether the mailers sent out by Republicans in North Carolina were legitimate.
“Talk about confusing,” wrote Sandra Still, a retired teacher, on a Johnston County Republican Party Facebook page. “Frankly, why is he down talking mail in/absentee voting so much and then the Republicans are mailing these out?”
Ms. Still, who lives in the Raleigh area, said she had recently changed her registration to “unaffiliated” after having been a Republican since the Eisenhower administration.
In an interview, Ms. Still said she had received three of the mailers. “I called them. ‘Why is he saying this is a fraud but y’all are sending me three forms for an absentee ballot?’” she said. “It made no sense at all. The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”
Adding to the confusion, Mr. Trump has attempted to distinguish between absentee ballots, which he says he supports, and what the Republicans call “universal” mail ballots — those automatically sent out by some states to registered voters even if they didn’t request one. Despite few reports of fraud in several states that send ballots to everyone, Mr. Trump has targeted such programs as suspect.
Tim Wigginton, a spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party, suggested that Republicans’ lukewarm embrace of absentee voting in his state had more to do with personal preference than confusion caused by Mr. Trump’s rhetoric.
“Republicans in North Carolina want to vote on Election Day and that’s the way they do it,” Mr. Wigginton said.
Mr. Wigginton, meantime, said the party was pressing ahead with its get-out-the-vote plans — 6.4 million different contacts with North Carolina voters, including phone calls, door knocks and the mailers.
Republicans have embraced a similar plan at the national level.
“Regardless of what issues we have with the vastly expanded absentee voting process, we still have to fight for that vote,” said Mike Reed, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
James Foreman, a real estate agent in Manhattan and Los Angeles, complained about a drumbeat of texts recently from the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee entreating him to vote absentee, including in Ohio, where he has never lived.
“I wish this was all a bad dream,” Mr. Foreman wrote in an email.
And, over the past several months, the R.N.C. has paid for robocalls narrated by Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, touting absentee voting.
“President Trump has mailed you an official absentee ballot request,” Ms. Trump says on the call, “which may have already arrived or will arrive soon.”
Kitty Bennett contributed additional research. Shane Goldmacher contributed additional reporting.