The Memo: Trump uses convention to target key states

There’s an important and largely overlooked subplot to the Republican National Convention — call it the Republican Battleground States Convention.

The GOP has gone all-out to elevate the voices of Cuban Americans in Florida, small-business owners in Wisconsin and farmers in Iowa during the convention’s first three nights.

All three states are competitive in November and Florida, the largest battleground of all, is close to a must-win for President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Trump dismisses climate change role in fires, says Newsom needs to manage forest better Jimmy Kimmel hits Trump for rallies while hosting Emmy Awards MORE.

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National media coverage of the convention has so far focused on the efforts to humanize Trump and defend him from charges of racism, or the ramping up of culture war rhetoric. But the tailored appeals to voters in key states could be just as important.

On Wednesday, Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstPoll shows tight Senate race in Iowa Will Republicans' rank hypocrisy hinder their rush to replace Ginsburg? Momentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day MORE (R-Iowa) was the most high-profile example. Her speech about the destruction wreaked in her state by an Aug. 10 storm known as a derecho included denunciations of the media and praise for Trump.

“If you don’t live in Iowa, you may not have heard much about it at first,” Ernst said. “While reporters here in the state were in the trenches covering the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane, most of the national media looked the other way. To them, Iowa is still just flyover country.”

Ernst added that when Trump visited Cedar Rapids, “the national media finally did too.”

Trump won Iowa by about 9 points in 2016, but polling shows a tight race there this year. He has a lead of less than 2 points in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average in the state, which backed former President Obama in both 2008 and 2012. 

Ernst is herself in a dogfight for reelection against Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. It’s one of the races that is likely to decide control of the Senate.

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The night prior to Ernst’s speech, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) addressed the convention, insisting that Trump “had our back” amid the state’s recent troubles. 

The Aug. 10 derecho left an estimated 300,000 people without power and is estimated to have damaged more than 40 percent of the state’s crucial soybean and corn crops.

Important as Iowa could prove to be in a tight election, it is dwarfed in size and significance by Florida. The winner in the Sunshine State will harvest 29 Electoral College votes, compared to Iowa’s six. 

Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll GOP set to release controversial Biden report Can Donald Trump maintain new momentum until this November? MORE is leading by just under 4 points in the RCP average in Florida. Trump’s path to reelection will be vanishingly narrow unless he can win there.

Cuban Americans are a vital constituency in Florida. There are more than 1 million Cuban Americans in the state, the vast majority of whom either themselves fled the Caribbean island after the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power or are descended from those who did so. 

Cuban Americans typically cast around 6 percent of all votes in Florida — a state that has been decided by 3 points or less in the three most recent presidential elections.

Cuban emigrés have traditionally leaned heavily Republican, unlike most other Latino groups. There are signs this is changing in younger generations, but exit polls suggest Trump won a majority of the Cuban American vote in Florida in 2016.

The convention has encompassed concerted efforts to hold on to that edge; Castro got prime-time mentions on both Monday and Tuesday — an accomplishment, of sorts, for a leader of a nation of 12 million people who died in 2016.

“I heard the promises of Fidel Castro. And I can never forget all those who grew up around me, who looked like me, who could have been me, who suffered and starved and died because they believed those empty promises,” Cuban American businessman Maximo Alvarez said on Monday.

Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez (R) followed up on Tuesday, saying, “My story began in 1959, before I was born, when my parents’ dreams of a prosperous life became a nightmare. Chaos spread quickly when Fidel Castro took control of Cuba.”

Alvarez and Nuñez both sought to tie Biden and the Democratic Party to Castro. It’s quite a stretch, given Biden’s centrism and Castro’s communism. Other voices in the Cuban American community have suggested that it is Trump’s "strongman" tendencies that more closely mimic the posturing of a caudillo such as Castro. 

Wisconsin is a long way geographically and culturally from Miami’s Little Havana, but it has received more than its fair share of attention during the convention, too.

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Tuesday evening’s program featured separate appearances from a dairy farmer and a business owner in the state. The former, Cris Peterson, insisted that Trump “more than any president ... has acknowledged the importance of farmers and agriculture.” Another Wisconsin business owner, Debbie Flood, is expected to address the convention on its final night.

Trump won Wisconsin by less than 1 percentage point, or about 23,000 votes, in 2016. It was one of the three traditionally Democratic “blue wall” states, along with Michigan and Pennsylvania, that he broke down on his way to the White House. He lags by more than 3 points there in the RCP average.

Other battleground states have also been catered to during the convention. The president’s daughter-in-law, Lara TrumpLara Lea TrumpHillicon Valley: Democrats demand answers over Russian interference bulletin | Google Cloud wins defense contract for cancer research | Cyberattack disrupts virtual classes Lara Trump campaigns with far-right activist candidate Laura Loomer in Florida Sunday shows - Democrats target Trump as violence flares MORE, emphasized her North Carolina roots on Wednesday, an evening that also featured a speech from Madison Cawthorn, who is running for a House seat in the Tar Heel State.

None of the efforts are guaranteed to work, of course. Trump is lagging across the battleground states. The same factors that have pulled his approval ratings down nationwide, in particular his response to the coronavirus pandemic, are as germane there as anywhere else.

Trump has also sometimes seemed to trample all over the careful calculus required to eke out a victory in the crucial states, whether tweeting he might “hold up funding” to Michigan or suggesting — and then walking back — the idea of a meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, a controversial figure with many Latino voters in Florida.

Still, the GOP is using its convention to do everything it can to bring those voters in key states on board.

Whether they prove receptive to the party's appeals is another matter.

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