WASHINGTON -- Election Day is now less than six months away, but most Americans have set aside a presidential campaign that's been upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
While the coronavirus has tossed the mechanics of politicking in flux for the foreseeable future, leaders in both parties and officials with President Donald Trump's and Joe Biden's campaigns are surveying a relatively stable political battlefield that will be concentrated largely in just about a half dozen states: the former "blue wall" states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the traditional swing states of Florida and North Carolina, and the emerging battleground of Arizona.
The common thread among these six states at the center of the general election map is that they were all carried by Trump in 2016, and that the president currently trails in many of the early polls there, leaving him mostly on defense heading into November.
"Those are the core," said Brian O. Walsh, the president of the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action, who downplayed the relevance of the current polling trends. "None of us should be shocked. Battleground states are acting like battleground states. My message is, everybody just calm down, these are battleground states. This is all just beginning."
Biden can become the first challenger to oust a sitting president in 28 years if he holds all the states won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and flips Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
With its 29 electoral votes, Florida is a continuously enticing prize for Democrats where Biden is showing early strength. Trump has almost no chance of reelection without it and the last three presidential races there have each been decided by less than 3 percentage points.
The Biden campaign is still weighing the efficiency of a significant Florida investment, with David Plouffe, President Barack Obama's former campaign manager, warning it's "a $100 million decision" for the likely Democratic nominee that needs to be made now.
"It's very tempting to go take Florida away from him, because then he's just done," said Jim Messina, Obama's 2012 campaign manager. "If you believe the polling, you almost have to go in. It's just super hard. The other problem Democrats have is, traditionally the way you win Florida is a massive field effort. Are we going to be able to do a massive field effort? What are the rules going to be? Can you knock on doors?"
Out west, Democrats are increasingly raising Arizona as a possible failsafe for Biden if Trump holds onto Wisconsin. Rep. Ruben Gallego, a third-term congressman from Phoenix and Biden surrogate who has encouraged the campaign to invest there, predicted the former vice president would win his state by 3 to 4 points on the power of a rising Hispanic electorate and moderate Republican women.
"I think you're going to see Arizona swing hard to the Democratic column," Gallego said.
And North Carolina, which Trump carried by 3 percentage points in 2016, is showing some signs of a Democratic resurgence. The Democratic governor looks to be in a strong position for reelection and the party fielded a competitive candidate for a U.S. Senate race on track to be the most expensive in the nation.
Still, some Democrats acknowledge North Carolina may be the toughest of the six to win back. One Trump adviser called it "a tease for Democrats nationally." Since 1976, Obama is the only Democrat who has ever carried it, by less than half a percentage point in 2008.
While more than a dozen states are regularly discussed as potential battlegrounds, both sides agree the results in the core six will attract the abundance of time, resources and attention.
Given the Trump campaign has a quarter of a billion dollars on hand, it is likely to also contest New Hampshire, Minnesota and perhaps Nevada, all of which Clinton carried four years ago.
Biden may be tempted by polls showing him within single digits of Trump in the GOP strongholds of Texas and Georgia. He's also off to an early lead in Ohio, a state that often served as a national bellwether but has trended towards the GOP in recent years that Trump allies are monitoring closely.
But onerous fundraising conditions under the pandemic will likely constrain Biden's available opportunities, at least at the outset.
"It's a huge challenge and going to force the campaign to be even more intentional about where they spend money because resources are going to be limited," said Meg Ansara, who headed battleground state operations for Clinton in 2016.
Trump in trouble
At this early stage, Trump is in the worst polling position of any president in more than 70 years, according to an analysis by The Economist.
Trump trails Biden by an average of 3 points in Wisconsin, 5 points in Michigan and 7 points in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey said the Scranton-born Biden is much-better positioned than Clinton was to carry white-working class voters in exurban counties.
"Every time he takes the Hillary loss by 10 and makes it four or five, that's substantial," said Casey, adding, "He's probably going to win those (Philadelphia) suburbs even if he has a really bad day, by 20."
David Urban, who spearheaded Trump's 2016 Pennsylvania operation, said it would be a mistake to predict turnout based off of Democratic congressional gains in the midterms.
"People want to look at 2018 numbers and say past is prologue. Voters in many states, including Pennsylvania, respond to one person and one person only, and that's Donald Trump," Urban said. "Donald Trump does a rally, it's packed. When Donald Trump sends a tweet it gets RT'd thousands of times over. People care about Trump, not congressman X, Y or Z who may be down ballot."
But the cracks in Trump's coalition are showing beyond the Midwest. Biden holds a 3-point advantage in the Florida polling averages. And in Arizona, which Democrats haven't carried since President Bill Clinton in 1996, Biden leads by 4.
North Carolina is the only of the six where the RealClearPolitics polling average tilts in Trump's favor, but just barely.
Trump's internal polling is also showing his precarious position in these battleground states. One Trump adviser told McClatchy he expected the president to again lose the popular vote, a striking admission given the historical precedent that would set.
But Republicans eagerly point to numerous surveys at this same period in 2016 that had Clinton far ahead in many states in which Trump ultimately won. The real campaign against Biden has yet to be unleashed, they argue, and once the cloud of the coronavirus begins to clear and the nation's health and economic strength has a chance to improve, the president will be rewarded for a comeback.
"A Trump-(Roy) Cooper voter is much more likely today than it was before COVID-19," said Mike Rusher, a former chief of staff for the North Carolina Republican Party. "Primarily because people are pretty happy right now the way the federal and state government are handling the response. Impacts have largely been mitigated in North Carolina."
GOP strategists contend the former vice president is currently riding his high-water mark, benefitting from a president consumed by a national crisis and making intermittent, often choppy TV appearances from his basement studio.
On Friday, Biden appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" to deny an allegation from a former staffer that he sexually assaulted her in 1993, quelling but not eliminating a storyline that could haunt him as the campaign intensifies.
"It's not a coincidence Biden is doing better in polls when he's gone underground," said a strategist close to the Trump campaign. The operative previewed an impending line of attack as hammering Biden's past statements on China and his son's deal-making inside the communist country. Those layers are designed to develop the predicate that Biden is a consenting creature of the Washington establishment.
"From June to August when Biden is broke, you savage him," the strategist said.
Biden's battleground campaign has been relegated to staff phone calls to local officials, Zoom meetings and interviews on local television and radio affiliates. To date, Biden has done four interviews with Pennsylvania outlets and two in Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida.
The campaign is attempting to wield this new virtual world of campaigning as one that can maximize flexibility. Instead of conducting an event focused solely on Florida seniors, for example, the internet can bring together those 65 and older in multiple states at once.
"It is wrong to imagine that one state would move independently of another," said Becca Siegel, Biden's chief analytics officer. "Geography has much less meaning. It's also worth thinking about broader groups of voters instead of state by state by state."
Reelection campaigns are usually a referendum on the incumbent. Only two have lost since 1932. Now Trump and Biden begin a general election in an unprecedented environment of dual anxiety over the nation's health and economy.
"If a majority believe that we got through this, they're not afraid anymore about their health, the health of their family and they feel like the health of the economy is heading in the right direction, then I think he's in good shape," said former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. "If they have doubts on either or both of those, then I think it becomes really, really tough."
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