Joe Biden’s national polling lead against President Donald Trump has been relatively stable for months. But the looming question for Biden is whether he can get the right combination of voters to turn out for him on Election Day — and in the right places.
Barack Obama beat his Republican challengers in 2008 and 2012 by driving historic turnout among African American voters and winning working-class white voters in Midwestern Rust Belt states. Replicating that exact playbook may not be realistic; Trump’s hold on white working-class voters can’t be underestimated.
“Michigan and Pennsylvania are prerequisites for a Biden victory,” said election analyst Dave Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “After that, what can put him over the top? Is it Wisconsin, Arizona, or Florida?”
The Biden campaign strategy will take a series of carefully executed plays. Cut into Trump’s margins with rural and exurban voters in states from the Upper Midwest to Florida. Make sure African American, Latino, and Asian American turnout is strong in Sun Belt and Rust Belt states alike. Appeal to a subset of voters where Democrats have been racking up big wins lately: suburban voters (especially women) who may have voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 but are wary of Trump.
And — maybe the biggest play of all — see if the campaign can win or at least significantly cut into the president’s margins with older voters, a traditionally more conservative and reliable bloc that suddenly seems to be turning away from the president. A recent Fox News poll found voters aged 65 and older said they preferred Biden to Trump by 17 points. A recent Quinnipiac University poll also showed Biden 22 points ahead with women 65 and older (and Trump leading men in the same age group). These polls could certainly change, but they’re worrying sign for Trump, who won older voters by 7 points in 2016.
“Even if Joe Biden cuts the margin of what Trump won [with older voters], because they’re the largest single age group, it is a huge, huge game changer,” said Biden adviser and pollster John Anzalone.
It’s going to be tough to pull off. Trump has an incumbent advantage and vast financial resources. And Democrats could risk stretching themselves thin; as much as there are new opportunities, there are also a lot of areas where they need to play defense. The former vice president’s strength with the African American community may not be enough to garner Obama’s levels of support from black voters. The Trump campaign’s attempts to woo black voters certainly haven’t escaped Democrats’ attention, and they’re worried black voters in Midwestern states who stayed home in 2016 may do the same in 2020.
However he gets there, Biden needs to find the right combination of voters in the right states. And with the coronavirus and a tanking economy upending the political landscape, he may have more opportunities to draw a distinction between himself and Trump.
“At this point, we see very few voters as off the table,” said Becca Siegel, the Biden campaign’s chief analytics adviser.
Rather than replicate the Obama coalition, Joe Biden wants to build his own.
Biden needs to win with a combination of white and black voters in the Rust Belt
Biden’s national polling lead of 5.5 points over Trump, according to RealClearPolitics, certainly doesn’t mean the election is a lock for him. As Hillary Clinton saw in 2016, where you win is more important than how many people you win nationally; if you don’t have the Electoral College, you don’t have the White House.
The Cook Political Report’s most current Electoral College forecast projects Democrats currently have a slight advantage with 232 electoral votes in states that are either solid, likely, or lean blue, compared to 204 electoral votes in red states for Republicans. Keep in mind these ratings could certainly fluctuate. There are just six states that Cook currently rates as true toss-ups (plus Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District; Nebraska is one of two states that assigns Electoral College votes to individual House districts).
Trump won all these toss-up states in 2016: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina.
The Midwestern trifecta of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin is an area where Democrats historically had solidly won presidential elections from the early 1990s, until Trump came along. Of the three, election forecasters believe Michigan and Pennsylvania are likelier to go blue in 2020 than Wisconsin.
The RealClearPolitics average of head-to-head state polls shows Biden up 6.5 percent in Pennsylvania, 5.5 percent in Michigan, and a smaller 2.7 percent lead in Wisconsin. (In the rapidly diversifying Sun Belt states, Biden has a 4 percent lead in Arizona, a 3.3 percent lead in Florida, and Trump has a 1 percent lead in North Carolina.)
Biden winning the three Rust Belt states will take a combination of strong African American turnout in cities like Philadelphia and Detroit, suburban voters, and working-class white voters where Democrats can get them. While Biden is strong with African Americans overall, Trump’s campaign is doing outreach that could cut into that lead.
“We should take the Trump efforts with black men and younger black men seriously,” said Addisu Demissie, former campaign manager for Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential run. “When you’re talking about margins in the tens of thousands in some of these states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida, that could be the difference. On the margins, any constituency matters.”
Polls so far show Trump still has a pretty strong hold on working-class white men nationwide, which he won by nearly 50 points in 2017. This is the core of Trump’s base, and they have largely remained loyal. Still, there is the potential for some movement among white non-college-educated women, who Trump carried by 27 points in 2016.
“There seems to be a bit more movement, you can peel a few more of them off,” said Monmouth University Polling Director Patrick Murray, adding that Biden is “certainly going to lose men in that group by a huge margin.”
Winning back working-class areas with Democratic roots and a heavy union presence in 2020 “isn’t rocket science,” said Rep. Conor Lamb, the Pennsylvania Democrat whose long-shot win in a 2018 House special election in western Pennsylvania was a sign of life for the party there. “You can win a lot of votes in these areas, but you’ve got to fight for them.”
When Lamb was first running in the special election, he met plenty of voters who felt left behind by the Democratic Party. “They just kind of felt ignored in a general sense,” Lamb told Vox. Although Clinton had poured resources into Pennsylvania, voters in rural areas outside of Pittsburgh where steel and coal-mining jobs were disappearing didn’t feel it. Many voted for Trump.
This year, Lamb said his constituents aren’t interested in hearing Democrats bash Trump as much as they are in issues that hit their pocketbooks, like the cost of prescription drugs, support for Medicare and Social Security, and well-paying jobs in Pennsylvania’s energy sector. Ties to organized labor in Pennsylvania and Michigan are still strong; less so in Wisconsin after state Republicans there passed a bill to gut unions.
“One of my messages to the Biden campaign has been and will be, it’s important to talk about who we are, what we are for, without mentioning the president,” Lamb said. “People want to know, ‘what are you going to do for me.’”
Rep. Haley Stevens, a moderate Democrat elected to Michigan’s heavily suburban 11th Congressional District outside Detroit, similarly said voters in her communities are tired of the constant partisan bickering in Washington, DC. It also happens the district had the 10th highest turnout in 2018, nationwide. It could see even greater turnout this year.
“We have a lot of people very eager to see the drama stop and see DC get to work for them,” Stevens said.
Biden needs to win over retirees to win Florida, the retiree state
The southern coastal swing state is key to any candidate’s victory on election night. It was crucial to Trump’s Electoral College win in 2016, when the Republican candidate over-performed Mitt Romney in white and rural exurban counties.
Clinton did well in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, but Trump’s performance in the corridor along Interstate 4, around Tampa and St. Petersburg, was too much for Democrats to overcome. They don’t want to make the same mistake twice.
Biden is currently leading Florida by 3.3 percent, according to RealClearPolitics. That’s causing some politicos who had written Florida off as a solid Trump win to rethink its competitiveness. If history is any indicator, the election there could be very tight; the last two presidential elections in the state were decided by less than a point.
“I’ve never understood why people didn’t think Florida was going to be in play,” said Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale, Obama’s Florida state director in 2008.
Like Arizona, Florida boasts a sizable Latino population, but it’s largely made up of Cubans and Puerto Ricans rather than Mexican-Americans in the southwestern US. Because Florida is home to a contingent of people who fled socialist governments in Cuba and Venezuela, its Latino population tends to be more right-leaning. The GOP has found success with this group in the past. Biden also bested Sanders with Florida Latinos in the 2020 primary.
“What’s fascinating there is it’s a population of people who for the most part came to the US with status,” said Schale, explaining why immigration issues aren’t as salient in Florida as they are in other parts of the country.
When it comes to November, Democrats are looking for opportunities along the I-4 corridor, and the suburbs and exurban communities between Orlando and Tampa are a prime target for them. Older voters account for another big reason why Florida is back on the table for Democrats in 2020. Florida is where many Americans go to retire, including large shares of retirees from places like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
“The swing voters in Florida, they tend to be the retired versions of people who live in the upper Midwest,” Schale said. “[If] the Democrats do well in Florida, they’re also going to do well in the upper Midwest. And if they do well in the upper Midwest, they’re also going to do well in Florida.”
Older voters will be key in Florida, but they’re also a key contingent in really any Electoral College state, whether it be in the Rust Belt or Arizona.
As FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley wrote, Trump’s average margin with older voters in head-to-head polls this year is underperforming his 2016 margins. Among voters 55 and older, Trump’s current margin is 10 points behind where it was in 2016. And among voters 65 and older, the president’s margin is about 14 points behind where it was in 2016. Biden isn’t necessarily winning these voters outright in polls, but he’s catching up to Trump’s numbers. Biden’s team considers even cutting into Trump’s margins with older voters a win.
“We’ll all be cautious about what the margin is,” Anzalone said. “I think we’ll do better, I’m not sure we’ll win them, but even if we cut the margin in half, it’s significant electoral impact.”
To win Florida, Biden needs plenty of retirees in his corner. But he also can’t ignore younger generations in that state, or any other.
Polls around the country show Biden has some work to do with younger voters. These voters tend to be more progressive; they also tend to turn out less reliably than older voters. The former vice president is doing outreach; he has already assembled policy-focused task forces with his former competitor Sen. Bernie Sanders, a popular figure among the younger generation. But more work will need to be done to make up an enthusiasm gap.
“In a close and tight election, these are the difference makers, these are the people who could swing this election,” said Sanders’s former 2020 campaign Faiz Shakir.
A combination of Latinos and suburban whites could put Biden over the top in Arizona
With a 4 percent lead on the RealClearPolitics state polling average, Biden’s campaign seems particularly bullish on Arizona. This southwestern state is a traditionally Republican stronghold that’s trending purple, owing to a combination of a growing Latino vote and white, college-educated suburban voters.
“We believe there will be battleground states that have never been battleground states before — Arizona on the top of the list,” Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon told reporters recently. “We are not only ahead [in Arizona], but we have a strong opportunity there to build our pathway to victory.”
Arizona voted for Trump in 2016, but pollsters see substantial demographic changes contributing to Democrats’ recent success there. Democratic US Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was elected in 2018, as was a Democratic secretary of state. And this year’s Arizona Senate race is one of the most competitive in the country.
“The reason states are moving bluer in the Southwest is we’re forming coalitions,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) told Vox. “What happened there is a combination of moderate white Anglos joining with progressive Latinos to win and put progressive Democrats in office.”
A number of Arizona Latinos are progressive, and the Democratic primary between Biden and Sanders was competitive for that reason. Biden’s team plans to do significant outreach there, and Gallego said the work of contacting Latino voters needs to happen as soon as possible.
Changing demographics in North Carolina make it competitive
Out of all the Electoral College toss-ups, North Carolina is the biggest reach state for Democrats in 2020. Trump slightly overperformed Mitt Romney in the red-leaning swing state in 2016, but its cities and suburbs are a growing worry for Republicans.
Trump’s razor-thin 1 point lead in North Carolina’s polling average reflects the state’s complicated political dynamics. In 2008, Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1976, and he did it by the slimmest of margins.
But even though Republicans have consistently won presidential elections in the state, the last three elections have been close, 2 to 3 points at the most. Many voters there are moderate, and Democrats successfully took the governor’s seat in 2016, a bright spot in an otherwise dismal election for them.
The reason North Carolina is so competitive this year, both with the presidential contest and the Senate race, is its growing suburbs. People are moving to North Carolina cities and their suburbs; in 2017 and 2018, a full 63 percent of the state’s population growth happened in the Charlotte, Raleigh, and Durham metropolitan areas, which are all considered blue spots and a potential opportunity for Democrats.
As Cook’s Amy Walter noted in a recent analysis, Super Tuesday election results in the state showed that the suburbs around cities saw markedly increased Democratic turnout; 61 percent of the vote for Democrats compared to 38 percent for Republicans (keep in mind, the Republican primary this time was less competitive with Trump as the incumbent). In 2016, Walter wrote, the Republican share of the votes in these suburbs was 54 percent Republican compared to 46 percent Democratic.
In addition to doing better in the North Carolina suburbs, Democrats will also have to cut down Trump’s margins in more rural areas and exurban communities if they have any hope of a good night there.
Obama won in 2008 in part because of enthusiastic black voter turnout, which also helped lift Democrat Kay Hagan to the Senate. Biden likely won’t be able to get the same levels of black support in North Carolina as the first black president did. His best hope there is combining strong black turnout with a surprising level of white suburban support, and cutting into Trump’s rural and exurban voters.
“This is very much about narrowing the margins from 2016,” said Anzalone. “I think that what Biden has going for him in terms of his connection with voters, he has the ability to narrow the margins with rural voters, with exurban voters.”
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