It’s perhaps the quintessential question of the 2020 presidential election: What path should the Biden campaign take to win the 270 electoral votes needed to regain the White House?
The Rust Belt route consists of states that Democrats usually win, but which saw a sharp swing in Donald Trump’s favor four years ago. In this category Iowa and Ohio were Trump’s best states, while Minnesota narrowly favored Hillary Clinton. The biggest prizes, though, are the trio of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where Trump’s razor-thin margins put him over the top in 2016.
The Sun Belt path consists of states that typically support the GOP, but where demographics are moving them towards the Democrats. Among these states are toss-up staples like Florida and North Carolina, blue-leaning Nevada, the emerging purple state of Arizona, and finally formerly ruby red Texas and Georgia.
While the obvious response is that the Biden team should pursue both avenues and contest all of these states, one strategy will inevitably emerge ahead of the other. In fact, a careful study of the race reveals that Biden has already made his choice.
Buried in a deep-dive New York Times piece on Biden’s Vice-Presidential search was the disclosure that Biden told advisers that he “intended to win the election in the Midwest.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course, since Biden’s philosophy has been clear from the beginning. In his announcement video, the former VP framed his run as a “battle for the soul of this nation.” So from the start, his focus was almost explicitly on a return to normalcy rather than a set of bold, new policy proposals. Thus it makes sense to try and rebuild the Blue Wall instead of stretching to create a new electoral paradigm.
In the primary season, Biden was attacked by progressives for his moderate stances while supporters pointed to his strengths with white voters in the must-win Rust Belt states. As the race transitioned to the general election, Biden continued to improve upon Clinton’s numbers with white college educated voters and even those without a degree. At the same time, his support with Hispanics and African-Americans was lagging a few points behind Hillary’s.
These trends suggest a Midwestern path makes the most sense, and the campaign is acting accordingly. They were able to take advantage of Pennsylvania’s close proximity to Wilmington, making multiple visits there even while the COVID-19 pandemic made traditional politicking exponentially more difficult. When Biden recently revealed that he’ll be doing more campaign events in September, three of the four states he mentioned (Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) were in the Rust Belt.
You can also discern the Democratic nominee’s priorities from his campaign’s TV ad buys. At this moment, they’re on the air in Ohio but not Georgia. Both are 2016 Trump states with a slightly red tilt, yet the Biden team is more comfortable competing for Ohio. Conversely they’re on the air in Nevada, which suggests the Biden squad is a bit worried about holding this diverse Sun Belt state. Finally, the Biden campaign is going up in Minnesota a month before ads begin in Georgia and Texas.
Biden’s approach to the electoral map is really a throw-back to Obama’s 2008 and 2012 strategies. Those campaigns prioritized locking up the Midwest before searching for additional victories down South and out West. As a result, in 2008 the Obama-Biden ticket won every state from Minnesota to New Jersey. Whereas in 2016 Hillary Clinton won just Minnesota and New Jersey. Clinton’s struggles, however, shouldn’t be seen as a sign that the Dems are finished in the Rust Belt. After all, with the exception of Indiana, the 2012 Obama-Biden team was able to run the table again.
Joe Biden is keenly aware that this is the region where presidencies are born, and he’s betting it will be the place that puts him in the Oval Office.