Donald Trump’s campaign once spoke of expanding his electoral map into blue-leaning territory like Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico and New Hampshire.
Now, winning at least a handful of those states has become a matter of survival.
States that top campaign officials had said they had the luxury of pursuing are no longer considered add-ons to the president’s electoral vote tally but backstops to keep him afloat, according to multiple people close to or involved with his reelection operation.
The most telling sign of Trump’s defensive posture is his recent mammoth TV ad buys. The campaign is spending big to retain states he won in 2016 and to shore up support in places a Republican should already dominate, like Georgia or Florida’s Panhandle.
Publicly, the Trump campaign asserts the candidate is still competitive in each of the 30 states he carried in 2016. It says presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden faces an enthusiasm deficit among his party’s likeliest voters and that public polling — much of which has shown the president trailing far behind Biden nationally, and more narrowly in battleground states — does not jibe with their own internal numbers.
“President Trump plans on winning every state that he did in 2016, plus picking up others. We’re in a great position to be on offense and would rather be in our shoes than in Joe Biden’s,” said senior adviser Jason Miller.
But privately, campaign aides, senior administration officials and GOP donors have begun to acknowledge what they call a more plausible scenario: a pair of losses in the Rust Belt, most likely Michigan and Wisconsin. That would mean the president has to win some proven Trump-averse states to crack the 270-vote threshold needed to clinch a second term.
Gone are the days of forecasting a landslide victory, said one person close to the Trump campaign. The president’s team is now recasting its expectations to identify not where Trump can win more, but how he can lose less.
“We don’t need 306. We just need 270. We can lose Michigan and lose Pennsylvania and still win,” said a top Trump adviser, noting that a win in New Hampshire, combined with one in Nevada or New Mexico, would provide enough Electoral College support to prevent defeat even if Biden wins big in the industrial Midwest.
That strategy accounts for a base of 260 electoral votes, a sum of every state Trump carried four years ago minus Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which total a combined 46 Electoral College votes. To ensure its effectiveness, the campaign has recently moved to shore up its base states, including North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and Iowa. The president’s standing among independents and seniors has eroded in those places amid his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the economic slowdown and unrest spurred by the killing of George Floyd.
A fall advertisement blitz reserved by the Trump campaign last week reflected the campaign's efforts to solidify states he carried four years ago. On Monday, the campaign dropped $95 million on broadcast TV ads that will air from early September until Election Day in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. A second purchase set to bring the campaign’s total ad spending this week to $188 million is expected to include Michigan, New Mexico and Iowa.
Both Florida and Ohio, the latter of which Trump won handily in 2016, recently reentered swing state territory, a development that has troubled Trump allies who previously viewed them as easy wins. Trump's ads in Georgia and Arizona — reliably red states in 2016 — indicate that his team sees Biden as a threat in the Sun Belt.
“We’re shoring up the base of our house to build to 270. We need to solidify them the best we can, with Florida being the linchpin of all of it,” said the top Trump adviser, who added that Iowa and Ohio are “closer than we want at this juncture.”
The campaign’s latest ad buy also included a nearly $10,000 investment in the Atlanta market. That worried one GOP operative who said the campaign’s ground operation in the state, which is run by the Trump Victory Team, “has been begging for direction from the campaign or Republican National Committee for several months to no avail.”
The last time Georgia broke for the Democratic presidential nominee was in 1992, but a recent poll by Fox News showed Biden with a narrow lead.
Biden is spending far less on advertising. He is on air in only the six battlegrounds Trump won in 2016: Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Arizona.
Biden leads Trump in all of those states, according to Real Clear Politics polling averages, which also show the Democrat ahead of Trump in the four states Trump campaign officials have eyed as potential pickups: New Mexico, Nevada, Minnesota and New Hampshire.
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has previously claimed the president’s policy agenda is capable of attracting Latino voters in states like New Mexico, which currently boasts an all-Democratic congressional delegation.
“Let’s go straight into Albuquerque,” Parscale told Trump at one point last summer, as previously reported by POLITICO. The campaign eventually held a rally in the Albuquerque suburbs last September.
Now it’s Biden’s campaign that’s swaggering.
“We’re playing offense, buying programs like daytime Fox News and NASCAR to get in front of a large volume of Obama/Trump voters,” Biden’s campaign said in an internal memo obtained by POLITICO that outlines its ad buys.
Biden’s current five-week, $15 million TV buy is scheduled to be burned up by the end of next week, according to the Democrat’s campaign. So far, he has spent and reserved about half that amount, according to the tracking firm Advertising Analytics.
Biden’s campaign is zeroing in on the one swing state Trump can’t afford to lose: his newly adopted home state of Florida. The Trump campaign placed a massive $32 million fall ad buy this week. Other media buys by the Trump campaign have underscored Biden’s reason to go after Panhandle voters: The campaign last month spent $205,000 in the Pensacola television market, which shares viewers with Mobile, Ala. — conservative bastions where Republican campaigns seldom feel the need to get on air five months before Election Day.
“Right from the get-go we’re establishing a presence in the Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville markets,” the memo stated, promising a “strong presence in the Panhandle to get in front of white working-class voters who moved from Obama in ’12 to Trump in ’16.”
In a sign of Trump’s Florida struggles, the president on Thursday brought back his former Florida campaign fixer, Susie Wiles, who had been chased out by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for unknown reasons in September. At the time of her ouster, a top Trump adviser predicted to POLITICO she would return if Trump found himself in trouble.
With the November showdown between Trump and Biden still four months away, the president’s campaign maintains that voters — particularly in tougher Midwest battlegrounds — will break his way closer to the election.
“For us, Michigan was a late-term play last time," said the person close to the Trump campaign, who was also involved in the president’s 2016 effort. "And I suspect that’s what will happen this time around."