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The Memo: Florida and Pennsylvania hold keys to victory

The 2020 election, after all its drama and controversy, is likely to hinge on two traditional battlegrounds: Florida and Pennsylvania.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE badly lags his Democratic opponent, Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  New DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad MORE, in national polls, but if he can repeat his 2016 victories in those two large swing states, he would have a strong chance of reelection.

Such an outcome is not implausible even though Trump is behind in polls in both states.

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Trump has higher hopes in Florida where Biden leads by under 2 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average. In Pennsylvania, Biden’s lead is around 5 points.

If Trump were to carry both Florida and Pennsylvania, he could afford to lose Wisconsin and Michigan yet still win a second term — so long as he repeated his victories in the other states he won in 2016. Trump is further behind in Wisconsin and Michigan than he is in Pennsylvania.

The importance of Pennsylvania was seen plainly on Monday. Trump held three rallies in the state, where he bashed Biden, especially on the economy. 

The Trump campaign has sought to reap political dividends from confusion about Biden’s position on fracking, an industry which is particularly important in southwestern Pennsylvania. 

“Biden’s plan is an economic death sentence on Pennsylvania’s energy sector,” Trump told a large crowd at his first stop in Allentown, Pa. “He will eradicate your energy and send Pennsylvania into a crippling depression.”

Biden made an unscheduled 15-mile trip from his home in Delaware to speak in Chester, Pa., on Monday afternoon. Biden said that by hosting such large rallies Trump was “putting on superspreaders.” 

The Democrat, who frequently mentions he is a native of Scranton, Pa., also told reporters: “By the grace of God, I’ll win Pennsylvania. It’s a big deal to me, personally as well as politically.”

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John Podesta, who served as campaign chairman for 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonValadao unseats Cox in election rematch Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Federal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we're ready to get back to work MORE, told The Hill that Trump was, in fact, on the wrong side of the issue on fracking from a political standpoint.

Podesta added: “Biden just needs to explain, A, that he is not going to ban fracking but more importantly, B, he is going to create millions of new green-energy jobs.”

Florida has even more electoral votes than Pennsylvania, 29 to 20, and if the president does not win the Sunshine State, his path to reelection becomes vanishingly narrow.

Losing Florida would leave Trump needing to not only win Pennsylvania, but probably both Wisconsin and Michigan — or else some combination including a state he lost in 2016, such as Minnesota.

Trump cast his vote in Palm Beach County on Saturday. The president officially changed his state of residence from staunchly Democratic New York to swing-state Florida in September 2019.

On the other side, former President Obama was in Miami on Saturday and will visit Orlando on Tuesday, seeking to shore up Democratic support in a state that he carried twice. Biden himself will visit Florida Thursday.

Florida is the state in which each candidate had spent the most on TV advertising. The Biden campaign has spent $74 million on ads in the state, compared to $53 million for Trump, between the start of May and Oct. 15, according to The New York Times.

Trump campaign manager Bill StepienBill StepienFormer Trump campaign chief Parscale reportedly planning to write a book The Memo: Trump hits out as tide moves for Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Biden inches closer to victory MORE evinced confidence about Florida on a conference call with reporters on Monday, despite Biden’s small polling lead in the state.

Registered Democrats had far outpaced registered Republicans in submitting mail-in ballots, Stepien acknowledged, but this advantage was being whittled down since early voting in-person began in most of the state’s 67 counties on Oct. 19.

Stepien said that ballots cast by Democrats had outpaced Republicans by 19 points in mail-in ballots but “today it is less than 6 percent.” 

He added, “Every day we eat into the lead that Democrats built during the absentee period.”

Democrats in the state say they believe Biden has a clear edge — even if they are adamant that nothing can be taken for granted.

Miami-based Democratic consultant Fernand Amandi said his confidence was being bolstered by indications of historically high turnout, which traditionally benefits Democrats.

But asked what makes him nervous, Amandi replied with a laugh, “Florida, Florida, Florida makes me nervous.”

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He added: “Florida seems to enjoy giving the country electoral heart attacks every four years and 2020 appears to be no different. Based on what we are seeing, it should be a nail-biter.”

There has been some concern among Democrats in Florida about the Latino vote, especially among Cuban Americans, who are a vital constituency in the state.

Susan MacManus, a professor emerita at the University of South Florida, noted that there was a political “schism” in the Hispanic community between those “from a country of origin where there is socialism” — a reference primarily to Cuba, but also to Venezuela and Nicaragua — and voters from other nations.

Podesta cautioned against oversimplifying the politics of the Cuban American community, noting that it was more politically diverse than "the way it was in the '60s." But he acknowledged, "Trump has pressed and campaigned and his campaign has communicated, and he is probably getting a little bit more of the Latinx vote than in 2016. Biden remains ahead but it's a tight race."

The dynamics of Pennsylvania are vastly different. Democratic strength is centered on Philadelphia. The city’s suburbs are also trending in a heavily Democratic direction — fueled in part by female voters who are overwhelmingly hostile to Trump.

But Trump was strong in 2016 in the state’s southwest in particular. 

Terry Madonna, a public affairs professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, said that the northeast of the state would be an area to watch in election returns. He argued a Democrat needed to win key counties there and that Hillary Clinton’s relatively poor performance in the area in 2016 was an important reason why she lost the state.

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Across the state, Madonna added, “Trump has to energize his base — meaning the white, blue-collar workers in the old mining and mill industrial towns.”

Pennsylvania Democratic strategist Mark Nevins said he was “cautiously optimistic” about Biden’s chances but that he did not believe any victory would be large. 

“A blow-out in Pennsylvania is a 4-point win,” Nevins said. “I do not put a lot of stock in polls that say 5, 6 or even 10 points. That to me is not likely.”

Madonna, the Franklin and Marshall professor, said of Pennsylvania, “I won’t rule out that Trump can win, but he’s not the favorite right now.”

That same could be said of Trump’s overall second term chances. 

He is the underdog but far from a no-hoper. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.