White House

Trump already forging campaign path to rebuild 2016 electoral map

GOP insiders say president faces big challenge created by his own focus on base

President Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he departs the Capitol on March 14. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

First Michigan. Then Wisconsin. And now Florida. President Donald Trump is already on a narrow electoral path to a second term, largely of his own creation.

He will follow recent re-election rallies in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Green Bay, Wisconsin, with one near Panama City, Florida, on May 8. All three are medium-sized towns in key battleground states, all of which backed Trump in 2016. Trump’s travels show his campaign team is eyeing a 2020 electoral map that closely mirrors the one that put him in office.

Trump narrowly won Michigan over Hillary Clinton by less than half a percentage point, Wisconsin by less than a point and Florida by 1 point. But recent polls from each state suggest he is chasing the Democratic front-runners 17 months from Election Day.

For instance, he trailed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Michigan by an average of 8 percentage points in a hypothetical one-on-one race, according to polling data compiled by RealClearPolitics. An Emerson poll put former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of Trump by the same margin in Wisconsin. And just 40 percent of Florida voters told Bendixen & Amandi International they think Trump deserves a second term.

“Look, it’s really going to be hard for the president this time,” said one former senior GOP Senate aide, granted anonymity to speak candidly. “I don’t think people realize that it’s going to be very, very hard for Trump to put all the puzzle pieces he had in 2016 back on the board.”

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Historical trends

That’s because “you have to look very closely, historically, at places like Michigan and Wisconsin,” the former aide said. “It has been a very long time since a Republican president or Republican presidential candidates won those states twice in a row — and also won some others, like Pennsylvania and Florida.”

Trump was the first Republican to win Michigan since George H.W. Bush in 1988, and the first to win Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

“To win, the Democratic presidential nominee only needs to get 38 electoral votes more than the 232 that Hillary Clinton earned,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said. That would get the party’s nominee to the 270 votes in the Electoral College needed to win the presidency.

“The president received 306 electoral votes and he will be hard pressed to keep many of them. The Midwestern states Trump won by thin margins — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Minnesota — alone account for 74 of those votes,” Bannon said. “These states alone have more than enough electoral votes to turn a Trump win in 2016 into a Democratic Electoral College victory in 2020.”

The Biden threat

The entry of Biden — and his blue-collar appeal — into the Democratic race could further complicate things for Trump, assuming the former vice president secures the nomination.

Biden’s approval rating among non-white voters, which could lead to a big turnout among that group — bigger than Clinton generated in 2016 — was at 66 percent, according to a new CNN poll. The longtime Delaware senator is also at 54 percent favorability with voters over 65, a group whose support would be key to Trump’s re-election. And Biden holds a net favorability rating of 47 percent to 42 percent among non-college graduates.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why the president has posted on Twitter about Biden six times since March 22, saying in one tweet he has concluded he will face either the former vice president or Sanders in 2020.

“I’m only here because of Biden & Obama,” the president tweeted Monday morning. Less than 10 minutes later, he questioned “Sleepy Joe Biden” for holding his first campaign rally in Pittsburgh, tweeting his contention that the Democrat “obviously doesn’t know that Pennsylvania is having one of the best economic years in its history, with lowest unemployment EVER, a now thriving Steel Industry (that was dead) & great future!”

Playing to the base

Trump’s campaign rally messages in Michigan and Wisconsin featured boasts about his claims of bringing new jobs to those states — figures Democrats dispute. He also used the so-called Green New Deal, a plan to combat climate change pushed by some in the Democrats’ liberal faction, to warn Grand Rapids voters about his foes.

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“No more airplanes, no more cows. One car per family. One car. You’re going to love that in Michigan,” he said, distorting the effects of the progressives’ proposal. “Hey, how do you like the idea of one car per family?” The crowd there booed loudly.

“In the state of Wisconsin alone, we have created 23,000 brand new manufacturing and construction jobs, a record,” he said in Green Bay without supporting data. (Though his much-touted deal for electronics giant Foxconn to build a jobs-creating plant in Mount Pleasant has stalled.)

At both Upper Midwest campaign stops, the unconventional president delivered a conventional message — just in his own unique way — by essentially asking voters if they were better off financially than before he took office. He hit that very note in a Wednesday morning tweet, pointing to a new Gallup survey that found 56 percent of Americans rating their own financial situation as “excellent or good.”

On paper, recreating the 2016 map appears a tough road for Trump. But one GOP insider said it is — by his own hand — the lone road back to the White House.

“President Trump won an exceedingly narrow Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote in 2016,” said Michael Steel, who was an aide to former Speaker John A. Boehner and 2016 presidential hopeful Jeb Bush.

“Since then, he has consistently played this political base rather than looking to expand his coalition. So, barring a startlingly inept and unpopular Democratic nominee, his only path to victory in 2020 is re-creating the 2016 map.”

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