“He’s settled in at a level that makes him formidable in terms of creating an Electoral College bloc that includes for sure Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, but also Minnesota, while competing readily for Ohio and Iowa,” says veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. Unless Trump can reverse Biden’s advantages in the key Rust Belt battlegrounds, Greenberg argues, the former vice president “has locked up the presidency. … You have an impossible Electoral College advantage with the states he’s ahead of in the Rust Belt.”
Trump stunned Democrats in 2016 when he captured Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, despite trailing in the polls then too, behind an unexpected surge of turnout from his core group of non-college-educated Whites, especially those in small-town and rural communities. Apart from Michigan, where Trump’s relentless attacks on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer during the coronavirus pandemic have weakened his position, few in either party rule out the possibility of Trump surprising again in the Rust Belt, even if polls are more favorable for Biden now than Clinton then.
“My sense of what I see particularly in rural parts of the state and smaller cities is that the Trump vote is more energized now than it was four years ago,” says Mark Graul, a Wisconsin-based Republican strategist who ran George W. Bush’s campaign there in 2004.
Privately, some Democratic operatives who are closely watching the early voting totals say they see worrisome signs that once again the share of non-college and rural Whites who are participating is larger than expected, even as turnout is slightly disappointing among voters of color and young people.
“The overperformance of non-college White and rural is nothing to laugh at,” said one high-level Democratic strategist who’s monitoring the data.
But unlike Clinton, who slighted Michigan and Wisconsin in campaign visits and advertising, Biden has remained laser-focused on these three states. According to CNN ad tracking, he’s spent more on television advertising in Pennsylvania than in any other state except Florida, which is much larger; he is outspending Trump on television by about 2-to-1 or more in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin alike. Biden has also devoted many of his relatively few personal campaign appearances to those states, usually appearing before working-class audiences. Biden is “visibly campaigning for working-class votes, speaking to those who had voted for Trump and saying, I hear you,” said Greenberg, who first became prominent for his landmark focus groups after the 1984 election documenting White working-class defection from the Democrats in blue-collar Macomb County outside Detroit.
Trump dominated in 2016
It may not be as flashy as tipping the rapidly changing states of the Sun Belt, but Biden appears to have decided it is the staid Rust Belt that will settle his fate. For years, the motto of Ohio State football was “three yards and a cloud of dust”: Biden seems to have concluded that the shortest path to the White House is three states and a cloud of dust through the industrial Midwest.
In 2016, the Rust Belt was the epicenter of the Trump earthquake. He narrowly tipped Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by a combined 77,744 votes, dislodging them from the “blue wall,” the phrase I coined for the 18 states that had voted Democratic in at least each presidential race from 1992 through 2012. As an exclamation point, Trump scored blow-out victories in Iowa (which had voted Democratic five times over that period) and Ohio (which Democrats had won four times.) He even held down Clinton’s margin of victory in Minnesota to fewer than 45,000 votes, the smallest cushion there for any Democratic nominee since native son Walter Mondale barely surmounted Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Across the region, Trump dominated everything but the largest metropolitan centers — and even in most of those Clinton lagged from the pace set by Barack Obama in his 2008 and 2012 victories. Looking at all six states combined, Trump won 442 of their 496 counties, according to analysis by Polidata, a political data consulting firm.
He flipped 98 counties that Obama had won in 2012. (Clinton won back just a single county that Obama had lost, Chester in the Philadelphia suburbs.) In preponderantly White rural regions across these states, from southwest Pennsylvania and southeast Ohio to northern counties in Michigan and Minnesota to western Wisconsin, Trump posted staggering advances over the showings of Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee. He improved on Romney’s margin of victory, for instance, by at least 30 points in the southeast Ohio counties of Meigs, Gallia, Monroe and Washington.
Trump also posted big gains in blue-collar suburbs and smaller cities across these states. Obama had carried Macomb County, the prototypical White blue-collar suburb outside Detroit, in each of his two elections; Trump won it by nearly 50,000 votes. Trump flipped the counties centered on Dubuque in Iowa, Racine and Kenosha in Wisconsin, and Erie and Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania; Obama had won each of those mostly White and blue-collar communities twice.
Trump vastly expanded Romney’s margins in the blue-collar counties surrounding Pittsburgh (including Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland) and slashed the Democratic advantage in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Janesville, Wisconsin, Davenport, Iowa, and Youngstown, Akron and Toledo in Ohio. In all, Trump improved by at least 10 points on Romney’s vote share in fully 138 counties across the region, according to Polidata’s analysis.
Clinton generally ran well in counties with large numbers of college-educated professionals. She expanded on Obama’s 2012 margin in booming Dane County, Wisconsin (which includes the University of Wisconsin and the state capital of Madison); Washtenaw in Michigan (which includes the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor); Franklin County in Ohio (which combines the state capital of Columbus and Ohio State University); and Iowa’s Johnson County (which houses the University of Iowa). She pushed the Democratic margin in the four big suburban counties outside of Philadelphia to nearly a combined 190,000 votes, up about 65,000 votes from Obama’s showing four years earlier.
But Clinton lagged in almost all the region’s big diverse urban centers, where Democrats rely on large turnout from Black voters. Compared with Obama in 2012, her margin of victory dropped by about 90,000 votes in Wayne County, Michigan (Detroit), 44,000 votes in Cuyahoga County, Ohio (Cleveland), 17,000 votes in Philadelphia and 15,000 votes in Milwaukee. Combined with Trump’s blue-collar breakthroughs, that erosion doomed her in the three blue wall states, which effectively decided the election.