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For the last three decades, Democrats have leaned on what was known as the Blue Wall: the 18 states and the District of Columbia that have consistently gone for the Democratic presidential nominee since 1992. The bloc was an insurance policy of sorts — until four years ago, when Donald Trump broke through in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and in a lone congressional district in Maine. Voters in those places put Trump over the top and sent him to Washington on a mission to destroy it.
Republicans, meanwhile, also enjoyed their version of a lesser-heralded Red Wall, or states that were prone to go for Republicans. Some called it the Red Sea, stretching from South Carolina to Idaho. But that, too, has started to break down — or become shallow, depending on the metaphor — and it’s not quite as red as it used to be. Now, as Trump is running for a second term, it’s more like a Pink Curtain or a Pink Pond that stands between him and defeat. The fact that normally deep-red Georgia and Texas and the swing states of Iowa and Ohio are in play this late in the campaign shows just how much the Democrats’ intense spotlight on those states has managed to dull the crimson sheen.
Democrats have made tremendous pushes into Republican territory in the last four years, as well as worked to rebuild what was once their safety nets in the Upper Midwest and Pennsylvania. They’ve boosted local and state parties, patched data disadvantages and recruited solid candidates for local races. Intense voter-registration efforts have followed, although Republicans have made up for lost time at a faster clip in some cases and the confluence of a pandemic, an economic slump and a reckoning on race that will all contribute to what are predicted to be once-a-century levels of voter participation.
Collectively, Trump and his allies have spent more than $47 million on TV ads in these four states and their 78 electoral votes, according to an NPR analysis. (Biden, meanwhile, is spending a modest $23 million.) On average, Trump carried these states by 8.1 percentage points in 2016; now he’s polling ahead on average by 0.7 percentage points in that quartet, according to Real Clear Politics’ polling averages. Trump won Texas by 9 points four years ago but is showing up in the RCP average of polls there with a mere 2.3-percentage-points advantage.
Trump’s precarious hold on these states is a lot about voters’ exhaustion with the last four years. Consider Ohio, a perennial swing state that has sided with the White House winner in every election but two since 1896. It has an unbroken streak of going with the eventual presidential winner since 1964. Four years ago, Trump carried 46% of Ohio women, according to exit polls. In Quinnipiac University’s poll of Ohio voters released last week, Trump’s standing with Ohio women had faded by 12 percentage points, sinking to 34%. If history holds, women will make up more than half of the electorate, meaning this is a potentially fatal slump.
But don’t write off Trump in Ohio — or any of these states, really — just yet. Among Ohio voters, Republicans have grown their number of early votes by 209% over 2016 levels. That’s a faster pace than Democrats’ still-impressive growth of 154%, according to figures provided by TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm. In terms of share of total votes, Ohio Republicans are running 6 percentage points ahead of Democrats in returning ballots. And perhaps more damning for Ohio Democrats: only 24% of them told Quinnipiac pollsters that they planned to vote on Tuesday, compared to the 66% of Republicans who planned to do the same. In other words, most of the Democrats’ votes were supposed to come early, and they’re already losing by this one measure.
What’s clear from this quartet of states is that Republicans still have advantages in them. Trump’s strongest defense is Texas with its 38 electoral votes. Judging from his supporters’ skirmish over the weekend with Democrats on a Texas highway, his team is emboldened.
But down-ballot energy is a real thing in Texas, according to The Texas Tribune, and TIME’s Chris Wilson broke down the math last week. There’s a reason Jill Biden, Kamala Harris and her husband have all made stops there during the final weeks of the campaign. The last Democrat to win electoral votes from Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976, but population changes have made Texas something of a white whale for Democrats, who in 2018 came within 2.6 percentage points of making Republican Sen. Ted Cruz a one-termer.
The mere fact that Trump and his allies had to spend any money at all in Texas TV markets says a lot.
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