Donald Trump has made clear he will attack Joe Biden unmercifully in order to ensure the election is a choice between him and Joe Biden — rather than an up-or-down vote on the president’s handling of the coronavirus.
Scott Walker has a different view, at least when it comes to Trump's chances in the all-important battleground of Wisconsin.
“I think it still boils down to a referendum on the president. They’ll beat up on Biden and they’ll raise some concerns,” said the former two-term Republican governor of Wisconsin, who lost his seat in 2018. But in the end, if people felt good about their health and the state of the economy, Trump will probably carry Wisconsin. If not, Walker said, “it’s much more difficult” for the president.
Walker is not alone among swing-state Republicans in his assessment of the president’s political prospects. Interviews with nearly a dozen former governors, members of Congress, and other current and former party leaders revealed widespread apprehension about Trump’s standing six months out from the election.
Many fret that Trump’s hopes are now hitched to the pandemic; others point to demographic changes in once-reliably red states and to the challenge of running against a hard-to-define Democratic opponent who appeals to a wide swath of voters. The concerns give voice to an assortment of recent battleground state polling showing Trump struggling against Biden.
There are certain to be plenty of momentum shifts before the election, especially in such a volatile political environment. Trump enjoys a vast resource advantage and his campaign has only begun going after Biden with sustained advertising — an effort that isn't yet fully reflected in public polls, his advisers said. This past week, the campaign circulated a memo to supporters saying that Trump had closed a once-substantial national gap.
And throughout 2016, many Republicans thought he wouldn't win.
But that hasn’t quelled GOP fears, even in some traditionally friendly states.
Georgia hasn’t gone for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1992. But last week, Republicans released two internal surveys showing a neck-and-neck race, one of which had Biden narrowly ahead.
“Georgia is absolutely at risk for Republicans in 2020 — up and down the ballot, everything is in play. The data from previous elections shows this. It didn’t happen overnight — Democrats have been making gains for years in Georgia,” said Republican State Leadership Committee President Austin Chambers, who has deep experience in Georgia politics and recently released a memo warning the party to take the state seriously.
Chambers said he's confident Trump will ultimately prevail. But concern within the state GOP has been growing, particularly because of the the state's changing demographics and fast-growing Atlanta suburbs, which turned sharply against Republicans in 2018. Former GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss noted that white suburban women have long been a “major key to Republican victories” in Georgia but broke from the party in 2018.
“Trump will need a significant turnout from them and he needs their vote,” Chambliss said.
It's a similar story in Arizona. Public polling over the course of the spring has consistently shown Biden ahead, and a recent private GOP survey had the former vice president with a small lead. Though Democrats haven’t won Arizona in a presidential election since Bill Clinton in 1996, the party flipped four statewide offices in 2018.
“It’s already baked-in that it will be a close election in Arizona from top to bottom,” said Kirk Adams, a former state House speaker and ex-chief of staff to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. If anyone is just now starting to feel "concern because of the president’s current standing, it means they haven’t been paying attention.”
Most of the GOP’s attention is focused on a trifecta of Rust Belt states that catapulted Trump to the presidency, but where he now trails.
Republicans, including Trump’s own advisers, are most concerned about Michigan. A Fox News survey taken last month showed Biden leading by 8 percentage points; two recent internal Republican surveys similarly had Trump trailing, but by smaller margins.
Democrats are unlikely to repeat their mistake of 2016, when they failed to turn out voters in liberal Wayne County, an area that encompasses the heavily black Detroit metro area. In one sign of Trump's vulnerability in the state, Republican Senate candidate John James made clear during an online video conference with black community leaders last month that he disagreed with Trump on an array of issues.
“Polling information is very concerning, just as it was in 2016” when Trump ultimately won Michigan, said Jase Bolger, a former state House speaker. But, he added, “2020 is anything but normal. So, yeah, I don’t like what I see in polling now. But, polling now won’t decide the election in the fall.”
Recent surveys have also shown Trump behind in Pennsylvania, where Republicans suffered across-the-board losses in 2018. State House Speaker Mike Turzai, however, argued the president’s populist approach would play well in industrial and manufacturing-heavy parts of the state and that voters would respond well to a message of economic recovery.
He thinks Trump can reverse the suburban losses Republicans suffered in the 2018 midterms, but urged the president to stick to an uplifting pitch.
“The president has to stay positive” in his economic message, Turzai said. “I think if he does that he can be quite successful, and I think he’ll win Pennsylvania.”
Others see reason for worry. Former Pennsylvania Rep. Phil English said the state’s Democratic governor would face backlash for his management of the coronavirus but that voters would likely focus any frustrations toward national Republicans in power.
“I think there is too much blame-mongering going on, but that is predictable and I think that is going to complicate the political landscape for Republicans in Pennsylvania because they’re the party with the White House, so all negatives are going to first be set at their direction,” said English.
Trump was the first GOP candidate to win Wisconsin since 1984. He prevailed by less than 1 percentage point, making it perhaps the most competitive of the Rust Belt states. The president has taken a keen interest in Wisconsin and campaigned aggressively for the GOP candidate in last week’s special election for a Republican-leaning congressional seat.
Tommy Thompson, who was Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor, said Trump would need to visit the state frequently. He urged Trump to focus on winning over female voters whom he's long struggled with, and to winning back the slice of senior voters who've soured on him during the pandemic.
“Trump has got to come into Wisconsin and spend some quality time here, and more than once,” said Thompson.
Trump campaign officials say their battleground polling has seen an uptick since the president scaled back his rambling daily briefings. They point to a recent CNN survey of 15 key states showing the president with an advantage. Trump was briefed last week on what advisers described as improving numbers.
The reelection campaign is engaging in a massive effort to take down Biden. It recently launched a TV and digital offensive centered largely around the former vice president’s dealings with China, where the virus originated. Trump's political operation has also been making calls to battleground voters making the case that Biden is soft on the authoritarian country.
Trump is also stepping up his public appearances, with trips to Arizona and Pennsylvania the past few weeks.
“In our own data, President Trump is in solid shape in all our key states. We have only just begun to define Joe Biden using his own record, particularly on his softness on China, and it’s working,” said Trump 2020 spokesman Tim Murtaugh. “There is tremendous enthusiasm behind the president and he has built an unstoppable juggernaut of a campaign.”
Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said he was confident Trump would win the state, which he carried by less than 4 percentage points in 2016. But with multiple competitive statewide races on the ballot, the former governor was less certain that Trump's popularity would carry over to other Republicans.
“The concern is: Will he have coattails for the other offices, from Senate to governor and other important races?” said McCrory.
Though Florida has drifted toward Republicans in recent statewide elections — Trump carried it in 2016, and the party won races for governor and Senate in 2018 — recent surveys have shown the president trailing in his newly adopted home state.
Former Florida Sen. George LeMieux said it was smart for Trump to start defining Biden and not give him a pass. But, like Walker, he argued the election would end up being a referendum on Trump, particularly how voters perceive his response to the pandemic.
Florida voters are “going to evaluate him over the four years,” he said, “and 2020 will be the most important year.”