Looking back at something I wrote at the beginning of the election cycle about the strategic battleground, I revisited the key question at New York:
Soon after the 2018 midterms, I reviewed the evidence about where Democrats made gains and suggested it still wasn’t clear which strategy the party should adopt in trying to recover from the 2016 loss to Trump:
“The two most obvious regional strategies for Democrats are to win back the heartland/Rust Belt (depending on how you think about them) states that Trump narrowly carried despite a strong history of going the other way: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. There are two similar additional states that Obama carried twice: Iowa and Ohio.
“At the other end of the spectrum are Sun Belt states that were already quite close (Florida and North Carolina) or that have recently been trending Democratic (Arizona, Georgia, and Texas) at varying rates.”
The midterm numbers didn’t really indicate one path or the other:
“In the end, the Democratic presidential strategy for ejecting Trump in 2020 will follow the polls — hopefully better and more frequent polls than those taken by the Clinton campaign in those heartland states that ultimately cost them the election of 2016 — and perceived opportunities.”
So here we are less than two months away from Election Day, and with early voting beginning almost immediately, and the best strategic path is still unclear. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump nationally by 7.5 percent. If Biden maintains that sort of lead through Election Day, then the Electoral College will take care of itself and the Democrat will win very comfortably across the range of battleground states in both competitive parts of the country.
But if the national race tightens, the battleground situation gets much more complicated. Again using FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages, Biden’s currently trailing in Georgia and Texas, and has a lead under 2 percent in Florida and North Carolina. Of the realistic Sun Belt targets for Democrats, Biden has a robust lead only in Nevada (6.4 percent), which Democrats carried in 2016, and Arizona (4.7 percent).
In the competitive Rust Belt states, Biden’s national lead is matched only by his advantage in Wisconsin (7.5 percent). He has a decent cushion as well in Michigan (6.6 percent) and Minnesota (6.2 percent), and a slimmer one in Pennsylvania (4.1 percent). He’s trailing, however, in Ohio and Iowa, which means they probably become winnable only in the midst of a big Biden victory.
So all in all it looks like a Rust Belt strategy makes the most sense for Biden, right? Ron Brownstein suggests that could be the case:
“Exactly eight weeks before Election Day, Biden has strong opportunities to recapture states that President Donald Trump won in 2016 both in the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt. But public and private polls consistently show that Biden is running slightly better in the former group of battlegrounds — centered on Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — than the latter, which include North Carolina, Florida and Arizona …
“[Biden’s] potential to improve on Hillary Clinton’s showing with older and blue-collar Whites means that even if he falls short in some or all of the Sun Belt states that many in the party see as its long-term future, he could still reach 270 Electoral College votes by recapturing Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the three big Rust Belt states that Trump dislodged from the Democrats’ ‘blue wall.'”
It’s easy to forget that — despite the blue trends in the Sun Belt and the red trends in the Rust Belt — Trump did better in the former in 2016, notes Brownstein:
“Trump and the Republican Party have demonstrably lost ground across both regions. But because Trump began with less margin for error in the Rust Belt states, the consequences of that erosion have been more severe for him there than in the Sun Belt.”
One big obstacle to a Biden Sun Belt strategy is the relatively high resistance of white voters — both college-educated and noncollege-educated — to Democrats in the South, which is probably the combined effect of high levels of Evangelical conservative religious affiliation and racial polarization in states with large minority populations.
Polling aside, there are reasons Team Biden might want a selective Sun Belt strategy in the home stretch. Florida, in particular, is a state Trump barely carried in 2016 and can really not afford to lose this year. But the current situation in the Sunshine State offers a reminder that it’s not just Democrats who are capable of geographic targeting. Trump is remaining competitive in Florida in no small part because he is doing extremely well among Cuban Americans and other Latinos concentrated in south Florida. These voters may have been the most important targets of all that endless and redundant socialist-bashing at the Republican National Convention.
It’s entirely possible that Trump simply cannot be reelected this year (legitimately, anyway) thanks to his poor handling of COVID-19, the collapse of his “greatest economy ever,” and accumulated public disgust with his character and personality. And it’s also possible that nothing the campaigns do will significantly affect the results in individual states. But at the margins, small things could make a big difference in a crazy-close election. The odds are high that if it is crazy-close, we’ll again be looking at the Rust Belt states that shocked the world in 2016.