In a tightening race, the trends are running in Trump's favor

The most unusual year and the presidential campaign that accompanies it are now at the top of home stretch. The unconventional conventions soon will be behind us, as the GOP takes its turn this week. The virtual campaign of a basement “Rose Garden strategy” will be forced out into the open. Then the real fun will begin.

Although the return to fall and the start of the final leg of the campaign won’t be like anything we’ve seen before, one thing is still certain: Campaigns are won on the ground. 

The blocking and tackling of presidential politics is what it takes to emerge victorious. Nowhere will that be more in evidence than in the key battleground states whose large chunk of electoral votes once again will decide the presidency. 

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Four years ago, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Shontel Brown gaining ground against Nina Turner in Ohio: poll Biden hits trail for McAuliffe in test of his political brand MORE and her team boasted that their “Blue Wall,” erected along the corridor of Northeast rust belt states from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, would produce a clean sweep and give her the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayAides who clashed with Giuliani intentionally gave him wrong time for Trump debate prep: book 7 conservative women who could replace Meghan McCain on 'The View' Karen Pence confirms move back to Indiana: 'No place like home' MORE and her brain trust saw an opening. They surgically exploited that opportunity and, when the votes were counted, the Blue Wall had collapsed like a bad soufflé. Donald Trump had dealt to an inside straight, carrying the electoral votes he needed from the working families of the very states on which the Democrats had counted for their success.

Now some left-leaning media outlets are hypothesizing that those same states have shifted back to Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Republican calls second bout of COVID-19 'far more challenging' Conflicting school mask guidance sparks confusion Biden: Pathway to citizenship in reconciliation package 'remains to be seen' MORE, and that the swing will carry him to victory in November. Stories such as the recent bit in the Washington Post highlight anecdotal “evidence” of a presumed shift in states including my home of Pennsylvania. Their reporters may be whistling past a political graveyard.

With its 20 electoral votes up for grabs, the Keystone State is the big prize along the Blue Wall. Four years ago, President TrumpDonald TrumpRonny Jackson, former White House doctor, predicts Biden will resign McCarthy: Pelosi appointing members of Jan. 6 panel who share 'pre-conceived narrative' Kinzinger denounces 'lies and conspiracy theories' while accepting spot on Jan. 6 panel MORE carried the state — the first time in almost 30 years a Republican had done so.

Ronald Reagan won the state in a surprise in 1980, and then coasted in his landslide re-election, picking up large blocs of “working-class Democrats.” George H.W. Bush carried the state in 1988 on the strength of Reagan’s winning populist coalition. 

Since then, it’s been all blue. That’s not surprising given the fact that Democrats have held a million-plus registration advantage for most of that time. That’s changing, however.

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For all the media palaver over the GOP’s fortunes in the Philadelphia suburbs, they overlook Republican successes in the rest of the state, many of them in traditionally deep blue territory. The Democratic registration advantage in Pennsylvania has shrunk by more than 140,000 since the election of President Trump.

Stories make good newspaper copy, and the Trump campaign has as many or more to offer than does Biden’s team. 

Drive down the back roads of any of Pennsylvania’s more rural counties and you’ll see dozens of giant handmade signs, spray-painted on plywood or splashed on cardboard with tempera paint, spelling out a simple message: T-R-U-M-P. You’ll see the same signs hanging off silos in the farmlands of Amish country’s Lancaster County. Ditto with the smaller Trump-Pence campaign signs, in the greatest demand imaginable, that dot the lawns of the mid-state, across the northern tier and into southeast Pennsylvania.

More compelling is the empirical data that continue to show every trend running in President Trump’s favor in the swing states of the industrial northeast.

While the race is tightening nationally, the trend in the battleground states is looking even better for the president. The most recent CNN/SSRS survey, released at the dawn of the Democrats’  virtual gathering, showed Biden’s leads down to 4 points, essentially a margin-of-error situation nationally. While some say that’s an outlier, it’s difficult to conceive of CNN throwing any favors Trump’s way. 

At the same time, the Muhlenberg College/Morning Call poll, conducted over essentially the same time, showed Biden leading in Pennsylvania 49-45. That’s a significantly closer margin than just a few weeks ago (CBS on Aug. 4 was 49-43, and some taken in July ran into double digits). 

The same is true of the other Northeast states up for grabs. While Trump won Ohio by a double-digit margin in 2016, his victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin were razor thin.

What was truly remarkable was that all four were “flips” from 2012, clear evidence of Trump’s drawing power among those constituencies. Oh yeah, he trailed in virtually every in-state poll leading into Election Day 2016. Then he ran the table. 

The polls are looking better for Trump in each of those states now. Trump leads in Ohio and has narrowed the deficit in Wisconsin (Marquette early August poll) and Michigan (University of Wisconsin-Madison poll of early August) with significant pickups over the past month.

Trends are a pretty good indicator of future performance. The trends are running in Trump’s favor. Add to that the fact that Trump has always outperformed the polls — and certainly any reporter’s stories — and there emerges a much better picture than the one painted by some in the media.

The clincher may be voter enthusiasm. While the Democrats chirped about an “enthusiasm gap” not long ago, it’s now Team Trump that holds that card. It’s hard to get excited about a candidate who sits in his basement hoping his purported lead doesn’t evaporate. 

Meanwhile, an enthusiastic Trump campaign is talking to voters where it matters: in person. In Pennsylvania, there’s an army of more than 125 staffers working in each of the state’s 67 counties. The Biden campaign hasn’t even begun to match that effort.  

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In Pennsylvania’s June primary, delayed because of the pandemic, Republicans swarmed to the polls in droves. There was no reason for them to do so. There were no contested statewide races on their ballot. It was purely Trump who drove them to get out and vote.

In what undoubtedly will be another very close election, the on-the-ground army will far eclipse the efforts of a cadre of lawyers lying in wait for court challenges. 

Elections are always won on the ground. 

Charlie Gerow, first vice chairman of the American Conservative Union, has held national leadership positions in several Republican presidential campaigns. A nationally recognized expert in strategic communications, he is CEO of Quantum Communications, a Pennsylvania-based media relations and issue advocacy firm. Follow him on Twitter @Charlie_Gerow.