WASHINGTON — Despite early speculation that Donald Trump’s powers of disruption will redraw America’s Electoral College map, blowing up the status quo and turning blue states red, campaigns and consultants in both parties are focusing tightly on the handful of swing states that traditionally determine presidential elections.
Those states — Florida, Ohio, Colorado, and Virginia — are already inundated with television ads, candidate visits, and campaign staffers knocking on doors.
For the next 100 days, if the current pattern holds true, much of the country will watch from the sidelines as one of the most vicious and combative contests in modern history gets decided in places like Toledo, Ohio; Orlando; and the Denver suburbs.
“It’s going to be a slugfest extraordinaire,” said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican consultant. “Brutal by any modern comparison.”
Hillary Clinton enters the general election with almost every institutional advantage, which, in any normal race, would give her a significant advantage. She has raised far more money, she has a much bigger staff and better ground-game operations, and is planning to run far more ads.
And yet polls have shown the race at a tie, or with Trump in the lead, both nationwide and in many of the individual battleground states.
Trump’s team suggested during the primary that he would rip up the traditional political map and make usually Democratic Northeast states more competitive. But aside from New Hampshire, a toss-up state where Trump won big and Clinton lost resoundingly during the primaries, there is little evidence of that.
Clinton’s campaign is openly baiting Trump, urging him to spend time on traditionally Democratic states that her strategists view as a long shot to flip.
“I absolutely encourage Donald Trump to spend time campaigning in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey,” Robby Mook, the Clinton campaign manager, told reporters last week at a breakfast hosted by The Wall Street Journal.
It is a quirk of the Electoral College system that the votes of many Americans don’t really have an impact on the final outcome of presidential elections, because their states are so predictably Republican or Democratic. And even among the 10 or so swing states that decide American presidential elections, there is an even smaller subset that occupy the most attention, because of their rich troves of Electoral College votes and persuadable populations. The winner needs to capture 270 Electoral College votes.
To be sure, advisers in both campaigns talk about fighting in states where their party hasn’t won in decades. Democrats dream of sending Clinton over the top in Arizona — or even, given its high Mormon population skeptical of Trump, Utah. Trump covets Michigan and Wisconsin, two states now governed by Republicans. But both campaigns know they cannot win the election without bringing some combination of Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado into their column.
Still, there is debate about what is happening in 2016. Even with just 100 days to go to Election Day, Trump’s angry brushfire that swept the GOP primary could ignite in unexpected places, some consultants say.
“States that haven’t traditionally been in the mix are going to be in play,” Carney said. “I don’t think folks that live on the East Coast get it. The country is not happy. That’s why I think, in these other states — like Oregon and Minnesota and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Michigan — things are not great. And there’s a giant anxiety about what’s going on.”
The race represents a common theme: change versus more of the same. In 1992, Bill Clinton represented “change’’ and then-President George H.W. Bush represented the status quo. In 2008, Barack Obama was the “change” agent.
Trump, the most unorthodox major party candidate in generations, is all about “change.”
And even while Clinton has tried to cast herself as a “change-maker,” her quarter-century in Washington makes that argument complicated.
“This is a classic change versus status quo election,” Carney said. “If it was on policy, Hillary clearly would win. But this is not a micro-issue election. This is a fundamental direction of the country election.”
Adding another layer of unpredictability in the last 100 days is the Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld. They are hoping to offer refuge to the large swath of voters unsatisfied with both Clinton and Trump.
They could become a greater factor if they gain enough traction to meet the 15 percent threshold necessary to be invited to upcoming candidate debates, but polling to gauge their impact on the race right now is difficult.
A CNN national poll last week indicated that Trump’s lead grows slightly when Johnson is included in the survey. But a Reuters poll of Ohio voters showed that Clinton’s lead increases with Johnson in the race.
No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio, and it will be vital for Trump if he is going to forge a pathway.
As in other swing states, Ohio will showcase an odd dynamic of 2016: Trump is presenting himself as a populist, focusing on converting white rural Democrats who don’t trust Clinton, while Clinton is courting suburban Republicans who are nervous about Trump’s temperament.
The strategy played out during both conventions. Trump made overt appeals to disgruntled supporters of populist insurgent Bernie Sanders. From the Democratic stage in Philadelphia, prominent speakers hailed Republicans John McCain, Ronald Reagan, and Mitt Romney.
“I thought I was watching the 1988 Republican convention,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron, describing this year’s Democratic gathering. “It was an overt attempt to not link Trump to the Republican Party. It was a play to those Republicans who have moral reservations about supporting someone like Donald Trump.”
In Ohio, Trump is likely to focus on coal country in the southeastern part of the state, while Clinton, in addition to the suburbs, will look toward driving turnout among minorities.
But Trump is likely to run into some roadblocks: He has been deeply critical of Ohio Governor John Kasich, one of his former presidential primary rivals. Kasich has refused to endorse Trump, and Trump has pledged to form a super PAC to try to defeat Kasich.
“It’s a baffling strategy,” Cohen said. “From the beginning of the Republican convention, Trump and his team have gone out of their way to alienate the Ohio Republican Party and the governor of Ohio.”
Florida is likely to become the focus for both candidates because of a simple fact: If Clinton wins Florida, she then only needs to carry the states that Democrats have won in almost every election since 1992 — even if she loses Ohio and Virginia.
But while Trump has a home in Florida, and he easily defeated one of the state’s senators, Marco Rubio, during the primary, he lacks some of the ground troops that Democrats have used to defeat Republicans in the past two elections. The state has also grown more diverse — 24 percent of Floridians are Hispanic, compared with 17 percent in 2000 — which could make Trump’s hurdles even greater. He has alienated many Hispanics with anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“I think Donald Trump is going to have a really hard time here,” said Anthony Bustamante, a Florida-based Republican consultant. “Not because I don’t like him — I’ll be supporting him — but I don’t know that he’ll have the resources for a really effective ground game. TV is not enough. You need a ground game in Florida.”
Trump is also at a disadvantage on the money front.
Clinton and the super PACs supporting her had $86 million in their accounts at the end of June, compared with $22 million for Trump, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
Trump is also continuing the approach that worked for him during the primary campaign, but could be risky during a general election: spending very little on television ads.
As of mid-July, his campaign and super PAC supporters had reserved only $655,000 in television and radio ads, according to an analysis by Ad Age. Clinton had reserved $111 million across 10 states, with much of it concentrated in Florida and Ohio.
Clinton has aired a wide variety of ads, some of them softly touting her biography (“For Hillary, it’s always been about the kids,” one says) while others are hard-hitting against Trump (“Our children are watching. What example will we set for them,” says another, after Trump is shown using coarse language).
Trump’s campaign has yet to air a television ad during the general election, but a super PAC supporting him recently took out two ads, one in which Clinton is shown apparently speaking in India in 2005 saying, “I don’t think you can effectively restrict outsourcing.” The other shows black-and-white images of gritty factory workers as a narrator laments jobs that have gone overseas.
“It doesn’t have to be this way. We can turn it around,” the narrator says, as the black and white ad changes to color. “It will be American steel that rebuilds our inner cities, it’ll be American steel that sends our skyscrapers soaring. It’ll be American hands, American workers that remake this country. We’re going to be working again.”
Now that the conventions are over, there are fewer big stages left to rewrite the fundamentals of the campaign. The four debates, beginning Sept. 26, could be among the most consequential moments.
These are the two least liked nominees in history. And one of the things Trump proved during the Republican primary was that no one goes negative better, or more often, than he does.
“Because both candidates have such high unfavorable ratings, both see it in their best interest to poison their opponent’s profile,” said Kevin Madden, a longtime Republican consultant and former adviser to Romney. “Don’t expect a very substance-driven campaign, but instead one that is really fought over attributes that will be increasingly personal and increasingly negative.”