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This is Biden's shortest path to the White House

Biden's principal asset in the 2020 Democratic primaries was the widespread sense among party voters that he was best qualified among the contenders to win back the defecting White voters, especially those without college degrees, who allowed Donald Trump to capture Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2016 -- and with them the presidency.

If Biden holds all of the 20 states Clinton won in 2016 and regains Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, he will win -- whether or not he captures any of his targets across the Sun Belt, or for that matter, Ohio or Iowa.

"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.

Changing demographics

Trump's sweep through the Rust Belt exposed the inherent vulnerability of Democrats in the region as the currents reshaping the electorate have quickened in recent years. In a process that predates Trump but has intensified under him, Republicans have gained ground among White blue-collar and rural voters while losing support among college-educated Whites, minorities and young people (particularly after the first millennials, later joined by Generation Z, entered the electorate around 2000).

The fundamental challenge for Democrats in the Rust Belt is that Whites without college degrees remain a much larger share of the vote there than in the contested states across the Sun Belt. In 2020, non-college-educated Whites are expected to compose 60% of the voters in Iowa, 55% in Wisconsin, 52% in Ohio, 51% in Michigan and just under half in Minnesota (49%) and Pennsylvania (48%), according to projections by the nonpartisan States of Change project shared exclusively with CNN.

By contrast, States of Change projects that those non-college Whites will represent only about two-fifths of voters in Florida, North Carolina, Nevada and Arizona and just around one-third in Georgia, Virginia and Texas. (States of Change is a research collaborative of three liberal-leaning groups -- the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution and the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group -- and the centrist Bipartisan Policy Center that studies the changing composition of the American electorate and its implications for policy and politics.)
The Democratic success in Rust Belt presidential elections from 1992 through 2012, as I wrote in early 2016, "depends largely on an act of political levitation: the ability to consistently win a slightly greater share of working-class white voters here than almost anywhere else." Experts attributed that Democratic-lean to an assortment of factors, from the region's union tradition and a broader legacy of class consciousness across these manufacturing-heavy states to a smaller presence than in the South of fervently conservative evangelical Christians among the White working-class population.

But Trump blew through all of the remaining bonds that had connected the region's White working-class voters to the Democratic Party. In 2012, exit polls showed Obama winning between 42% and 50% of Whites without college degrees in these six states. In 2016, the exit polls showed Clinton carrying no more than 38% of those voters in any of the six states, and in some cases less than one-third of them. (The States of Change estimates of voter preferences in these states put her number even slightly lower.)

Clinton's showing with college-educated Whites matched or exceeded Obama's in all of these states except Ohio, the exit poll found. But her collapse among the region's huge population of working-class Whites proved fatal, especially when combined with slightly diminished margins and lackluster turnout relative to Obama among African American voters.

Yet even the Rust Belt is not immune to the larger demographic changes reshaping the electorate across the country. Although Whites without college degrees still make up about half or more of the voters in all six of these states, in each case that number is down from 2004, when they represented about three-fifths or more, according to Census Bureau figures. Just from 2016 to 2020, States of Change projects, those non-college Whites will fall as a share of voters by at least 2 percentage points in each of these states.

College-educated Whites, who are trending more Democratic, will grow slightly in each state as a share of voters and likely cast about one-third of the vote in all of them; non-Whites, including small but growing populations of Hispanics and Asians, will increase in almost all of them as well, though much more modestly than in the Sun Belt. Non-Whites, according to States of Change, will compose about 1-in-5 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, but only around 1-in-10 or less in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. (By contrast, voters of color may cast about two-fifths of the vote in many of the Sun Belt states.) All of this tilts the hill slightly, but perceptibly, away from Trump this time.

Metros' recoil from Trump accelerating

The demographic divergence between the two parties has translated into a widening geographic divide across the region between town and country. In the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans generally remained strong across the region's rural areas. But the results provided a clear signal that the metro recoil from Trump apparent in 2016 is continuing, and even accelerating. Large urban and suburban counties provided huge margins for Democrats.

In Michigan, Whitmer, en route to her gubernatorial win, won Oakland County by nearly twice as big a margin as Clinton had done just two years before. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf improved on Clinton's vote share in all four of the big suburban counties outside Philadelphia, as well as in Philadelphia and Allegheny (centered on Pittsburgh). Likewise, Democrat Tim Walz, while winning election as Minnesota's governor, improved on Clinton's vote share in the counties centered on Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as their suburbs.

Though the Democratic gubernatorial candidates fell short in Iowa and Ohio, the most Republican-leaning of these states, they significantly expanded on Clinton's vote share in the counties centered on Des Moines and Columbus, respectively. This wave, more mildly, reached even into Wisconsin, where the preponderantly White so-called WOW counties outside Milwaukee -- Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington -- have remained more resolutely Republican than almost any suburban counties outside the South. Yet even there, Democrat Tony Evers cut Republican Gov. Scott Walker's margins by about 25,000 votes from 2014, while narrowly ousting him from office.

Democrats are confident that this metropolitan recoil from the GOP hasn't peaked. Virtually all public polls in these six states show Biden winning a majority of college-educated White voters against Trump; Biden's share of them in these surveys generally ranges from just over 50% in Ohio to around 55% in Iowa and Michigan to around 60% or more in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Graul and other Republicans believe that concern about crime and disorder will help Trump stabilize his position in the suburbs. But observers from all points on the spectrum agree that he's facing towering discontent among suburban voters over his personal behavior and conduct, and his handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

"There are just lots of people who seem to be tired of the rhetoric that comes out of the Trump campaign, particularly suburban women with younger kids," says Lauren Copeland, an assistant professor of political science at Baldwin Wallace University near Cleveland who supervises a regular poll of the Rust Belt states. "They don't want them growing up in an America where the president refuses to condemn White supremacists. What I think is even moderate Republicans may be willing to go out and vote for a moderate or center-left Democrat."

Private Democratic analyses of the early vote show that college Whites are voting more heavily than any other group, including both non-college Whites and voters of color. Those sentiments will likely translate into even greater turnout and Democratic margins in booming white-collar counties, such as Franklin, Ohio; Dane, Wisconsin; Oakland, Michigan; Polk (Des Moines), Iowa; and Montgomery, Delaware and Chester in Pennsylvania.

Signs aren't as unequivocal, but Democrats are cautiously optimistic that Black turnout will recover at least somewhat from its 2016 decline. Adrian Hemond, a Michigan-based Democratic consultant, says there are red flags both about turnout and possible defection from Biden among younger Black men, but that among older African American voters the commitment to voting against Trump "from the polling we've done, particularly for Black voters over the age of 40, is very, very high."

The task for Trump

With Democrats poised to gain ground among college-educated White voters, and potentially turn out at least somewhat more Black voters, Trump's best hope of holding the critical states that decided 2016 -- Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania -- rests on him winning bigger margins and inspiring higher turnout than polls now expect among his base of non-college and rural Whites. There's certainly a big pool of possible voters for him to draw on: As political analyst David Wasserman has repeatedly noted, Whites without college degrees make up a majority of adults in each of those states who were eligible to vote in 2016 but did not. (That again contrasts sharply with most of the Sun Belt states, where non-Whites and college-educated Whites combined compose most nonvoters.)
All public polls across the Rust Belt states show that Trump remains strong among Whites without college degrees. But polls show he's not quite as strong with them as he was against Clinton. With remarkable consistency, public polls across all six of these states show Biden winning about 40% of Whites without college degrees, sometimes slightly more, but more typically slightly less. While Trump generally retains dominant (if sometimes slightly diminished) leads among White men without college degrees, many of these polls show Biden running much more competitively than Clinton did among blue-collar White women. Among both genders combined, he's performing much better among working-class Whites in the Rust Belt states than he is in the Sun Belt, where polls usually show him attracting only about 30% of them or less.

Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, speaks for labor leaders and Democratic strategists all across the Rust Belt when he says that Biden, a 77-year-old Catholic born to a working-class family in Scranton, is much easier to sell to working-class White voters there than Clinton was.

"Four years ago, our members, too many of them voted for Trump. Maybe it was because they didn't like Hillary Clinton or maybe it was because they thought an outsider would shake things up or maybe he would deliver the promises he made" about restoring American jobs, Burga told me. Now, he says, "we are having zero pushback whatsoever with Joe Biden as our endorsed candidate." The result, Burga predicts, is that "we are definitely going to move the dial in terms of non-college voters that voted for Trump moving over to the Biden column."

Paul Maslin, a veteran Democratic pollster based in Madison, says he expects such sentiments to translate into consistent gains for Biden relative to Clinton in the weathered, midsized manufacturing cities that proved so crucial to Trump's victories across the region last time.

"I think the same thing is happening all across the Midwest," Maslin says. "When all is said and done, when we cut out the major metropolitan areas ... in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, I would guess we are going to see net 5- and 10-point movement toward Biden across the board in these more working class small-town, small-city, rural, non-metro areas."

One place to watch to see if this trend materializes: the so-called BOW counties (Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago) around Green Bay: They split about evenly in 2012 before shifting sharply toward Trump in 2016, but Democrats are optimistic Biden can narrow or eliminate that lead in 2020.

Graul, the Wisconsin-based GOP consultant, will be watching those counties closely, too. Their smaller cities and somewhat more blue-collar suburbs, he says, could be the tipping point between the two divergent poles that are emerging in the state. On one side, Democrats are benefiting from exploding margins in Dane County and shrinking deficits in the Milwaukee suburbs; on the other, he says, Trump is positioned to generate massive turnout from his rural and small-town strongholds in western and northern Wisconsin.

"I've worked in Wisconsin politics now for nearly 30 years and I have never seen the kind of enthusiasm for a candidate that exists for Trump among his supporters," Graul says. "I think there is a level of loyalty and enthusiasm to him that is unique to any candidate I've ever seen." Between those offsetting strengths, the BOW counties, and other smaller cities, could decide the outcome, he says.

Another Republican strategist working with the Trump campaign, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal planning, likewise told me that maintaining the President's advantage among blue-collar voters in those midsized and rural communities all across the Rust Belt remains his key to victory. Big suburbs in the Rust Belt, as in the Sun Belt, will likely be tougher for Trump than in 2016, this adviser acknowledges, but "the belief is you counterbalance that with the sons and daughters of Reagan Democrats" -- in other words, blue-collar workers who grew up in households that once reliably leaned Democratic.

"Seniors and these blue-collar workers in Rust Belt states -- those are what the race is coming down to," the strategist said. "It's really Donald Trump on the ballot. For these people, on one hand it's temperament and on the other, it's his agenda and does he have our backs? I think that's the question he is going to have on Election Day."

Democrats maintain a wary respect for Trump's capacity to mobilize his voters to the polls, as evidenced by their close attention to the high level of participation among non-college Whites in the early voting. But even if Trump can generate more turnout than pollsters expect among his small-town and rural supporters, he faces the likelihood that turnout will also rise in more populous areas, diluting the potential impact of his new voters.

"I guarantee you they are not coming out in some massive droves compared to a 29-year-old young couple in Madison. ... They are going to vote, too," says Maslin. (Madison, in fact, is already returning mail ballots at a record pace.)

Big numbers for Biden in the big places would leave Trump with a very narrow path. If Biden, for instance, matches Whitmer's expanded margin from 2018 in Michigan's populous and prosperous Oakland County, says Hemond, the stark question facing Trump is "Where do you go to make up those votes?"

Given the nature of each party's contemporary coalition -- with Republicans gaining among blue-collar and non-metro Whites while losing ground among the well-educated and diverse populations that concentrate mostly inside metro areas -- the large number of working-class Whites in the Rust Belt states mean that Democratic candidates are unlikely to win them through the 2020s as reliably as they did in the two decades from 1992 through 2012. That reality will create growing pressure on Democrats in the years ahead to break through in the growing and diversifying states across the Southeast and Southwest. But Biden's candidacy may offer Democrats a unique, if perhaps temporary, opportunity to turn back the clock in the Rust Belt.

As a result, in its final days, his campaign remains focused on the same three burly, heavily blue-collar states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that have been central to his strategy since he held his first rally in a union hall near Pittsburgh.

"The tipping point states right now are the tipping point states most of us would have guessed this time last year," says Democratic consultant Michael Halle, who ran the battleground state operation for Clinton's 2016 campaign. "Not a whole lot has changed. The best path for Biden is to win those three states and you are there."

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