On The Trail: Trump, Biden face broad battlefield as first ballots go out

The first ballots for the 2020 presidential election will begin reaching voters this week in a contest that is remarkable both for its stability and the breadth of the battlefield over which it will be fought.

Former Vice President Joe Biden holds a steady and substantial lead over President Donald Trump in surveys conducted before and just after the Democratic convention. Surveys released in the next few days will show whether Trump’s convention succeeded in either boosting the incumbent’s image or damaging his Democratic rival’s.

As the Labor Day kickoff to the general election sprint approaches, both Biden and Trump are contesting a huge field of battleground states, a broader terrain than the one over which Trump fought Hillary Clinton in 2016.

A review of advertising spending so far shows Biden’s campaign has spent more than $1 million in television dollars in 15 states, 10 of which voted for Trump in 2016. Trump’s campaign has spent at least seven figures in 12 states, only three of which voted for Clinton four years ago.

The ad spending illustrates the degree to which demographic and political change has altered the battlefield. In 2016, it was big news that Clinton planned to spend in Arizona, a state that last voted for a Democrat when her husband won reelection 20 years prior. Clinton spent $3.5 million there.

This year, Biden has already committed more than $21 million to Arizona airwaves. Trump has spent almost $9 million in Arizona, far more than any recent Republican nominee.

Biden has spent about the same in Michigan, where four years ago Clinton dropped just $2.2 million, according to data compiled by Advertising Analytics, a nonpartisan firm. Biden has also spent nearly 10 times as much in Wisconsin, $14 million, as did Clinton.

Trump’s campaign is playing defense in some surprising areas, including two — Ohio and Iowa — that were virtually written off as swing states in the 2016 contest. Trump has already committed $18 million to Ohio this year, up from $8.7 million in 2016, and $5.8 million in Iowa, twice as much as he spent there four years ago.

And both campaigns have already spent more in Georgia — a state where Democrats made inroads in the 2018 midterm elections — than Trump and Clinton spent combined in 2016.

It is little surprise that Florida is once again at the epicenter of ad spending. Trump’s team has booked or run $42 million in airtime there, while Biden’s team is up to $35 million. The state was also the most expensive for Clinton and Trump in 2016.

“Fifteen states seems like a lot of battleground, especially for more recent presidential campaigns,” said Travis Ridout, a political scientist at Washington State University and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ad spending. “At this point in 2016, the battleground was essentially confined to 10 states, and some of those 10 were not seeing many ads at all.”

Perhaps the most significant difference in spending this year is the overall volume.

Trump, who ran a virtual shoe-string campaign in 2016, has already committed more than twice as much to television, $166 million, as he did four years ago, $77 million — and with two full months to go before Election Day. Biden’s campaign has already reserved more television airtime, $203 million, than Clinton’s entire campaign did.

“Trump definitely has a smaller map, but he’s way ahead of his ’16 numbers,” said Kyle Roberts, chief executive at Advertising Analytics.

Democrats say they expect the race to tighten, and over the weekend pundits claimed evidence that racial unrest in cities across the country was beginning to work to Trump’s advantage.

But there is little evidence in public polling that that is the case. Instead, Democrats say they are still stung by polls in 2016 that showed Hillary Clinton beating Trump — a lead that did not overcome Trump’s advantage in the electoral college math.

“There’s kind of a collective PTSD, right, from 2016,” said John Anzalone, Biden’s chief pollster. “It’s OK to talk about it. We’ve all kind of been in therapy.”

Beneath the surface, Biden is running well ahead of Clinton among some key demographic groups. The most recent reliable national poll, conducted by YouGov for The Economist, shows Biden leading Trump by 18 points among women, 5 points larger than Clinton’s edge in 2016; Biden is statistically tied among men, a group Trump won by 11 points four years ago.

Biden’s leads among independent voters, younger voters and college graduates are all greater than Clinton’s vote share among those groups, according to the 2016 exit polls. Trump’s advantage among white voters and those without a college degree are both smaller than his 2016 share.

Crucially, Biden leads by a substantial margin among voters who see both candidates unfavorably. Trump won those voters by double digits in 2016.

The most telling factor, in polls stretching back more than a year, is that Biden’s lead has been remarkably stable. Nationally, his advantage has ranged between 4 points and 10 points for the entirety of 2020, according to the RealClearPolitics aggregate of surveys. Biden has held an advantage in all but two surveys going back to April; in those two polls, he and Trump tied.

In the last month and a half, Biden has led Trump in virtually every survey of key battleground states. Since the beginning of July, Biden has led in nine of 10 surveys conducted in Wisconsin; 10 of 11 polls in Michigan; and all 15 surveys taken in Pennsylvania. Over that same stretch, Biden has led two of six surveys in Texas, two of three in Ohio, nine of 11 in Arizona and seven of 11 in North Carolina — states that Trump needs to pave his path to reelection.

Trump is running out of time, and opportunities, to reframe the election. In an election in which more voters than ever plan to vote by mail, millions of ballots will have been returned by the time Biden and Trump meet for the first presidential debate on Sept. 29. The first ballots go out to North Carolina voters who live overseas this week.

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.

Tags Battleground states Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden

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