As his 2020 campaign gears up, President Trump is putting an early focus on the three Rust Belt states that sent him to the White House after Republican losses in midterm elections showed his support in the region is fading.
Despite dominant fundraising, an established campaign organization and the power of incumbency, Trump risks losing all three states in 2020: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. On Saturday, he held a campaign rally in Green Bay, an event timed to compete for cable-news eyeballs with the White House press corps’ annual charity dinner.
Trump’s interest in the region is being matched by his top Democratic rivals — former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who are putting an emphasis on voters in those areas.
The Trump campaign has been going out of its way to defend the territory. Senior campaign officials traveled to Harrisburg last week to assure state party officials the president has a strategy and the organization to win. Trump chose Grand Rapids, Michigan, for his first rally after Attorney General William Barr announced Special Counsel Robert Mueller hadn’t found evidence of a conspiracy between the president or his associates and Russians who interfered in the 2016 election, but referred possible obstruction of justice to Congress.
The president and his allies talk optimistically about expanding the electoral map to states he lost in 2016, such as Minnesota and New Hampshire. But his Rust Belt focus is an acknowledgment he may spend much of the 2020 campaign on defense, depending on the strength and appeal of his eventual Democratic challenger. In Wisconsin, 46% of registered voters surveyed in a Marquette Law School poll released this month said they would definitely vote for someone other than Trump in 2020.
Only 28% of voters said they would definitely vote for Trump.
Trump is able to tout data showing faster-than-expected growth in the U.S. economy. The Commerce Department reported Friday that gross domestic product rose at a 3.2%annual rate in the first quarter of 2019.
Biden’s entry last week into the field of Democratic hopefuls highlighted the president’s vulnerabilities, even as Trump moved to try to diminish him. On Twitter, he questioned Biden’s intelligence, dubbed him “Sleepy Joe” and said that if Biden could survive a primary against other Democrats’ “sick and demented ideas,” then “I will see you at the Starting Gate!”
Biden’s campaign responded to the tweet Friday in an email to supporters, calling it “beneath the office of the Presidency.” The email said Democratic ideas aimed to get the country back on track, and said that Trump would be the only person “making this campaign ‘nasty.’ ”
Biden’s campaign is built in part on the argument that the political veteran known for union ties and outreach across party lines is uniquely qualified to win back working-class white voters who went for Trump in 2016.
“He still has his Trump base in Wisconsin and all around the county, and these are the people who come for the rallies,” said David Canon, a professor of American politics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “But it’s a relatively small percentage of the overall electorate right now in Wisconsin.”
Biden, who often cites his roots in Pennsylvania, is making his first official campaign appearance in the state Monday and making an appeal to the working-class white voters who went for Trump in 2016.
Sanders, Biden’s biggest rival, made a campaign swing through Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin this month, despite that the three states don’t hold their primaries until next March and April. Sanders’ campaign took out a front-page ad in the Green Bay newspaper Friday.
Trump doesn’t need to win all three of the Rust Belt states to win a second term — provided he holds all other states he won in 2016. But he needs at least one, and he won them by a scant combined 77,000 votes in 2016 out of nearly 14 million cast in the three states.
Trump has raised a record amount for a president in his first two years and is picking up the pace. Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee jointly reported raising $71 million in the first quarter of the year and have $82 million in the bank. The 16 leading candidates in the Democratic field together reported raising about $77 million, before Biden’s entry.
The re-election campaign’s strategy is to bottle the magic of Trump’s first win while making the most of the time, money and organization built since, including a campaign staff already of about 40, said Tim Murtaugh, its communications director. The campaign is housed in a skyscraper in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington, where officials boast they scored a deal by taking over a lease vacated by a brokerage firm.
“We want to maintain the feeling that he is the leader of an insurgency, that people who still feel the federal government isn’t listening to them, they still view him as their champion,” Murtaugh said in an interview at the headquarters. “We have this advantage of time and we intend to use it.”
Some of Trump’s aides still hope they can persuade him to adopt a more presidential demeanor ahead of his re-election, and discussed the idea again on Wednesday. Others doubt the 72-year-old president will change his style.