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Trump's misreading the map, looking for Electoral College votes in some of the wrong places

Analysis: The president is putting out fires in red states, while Biden is focused on a half-dozen key battlegrounds.
Image: U.S. President Trump arrives at Green Bay Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay, Wisconsin
President Donald Trump steps off Air Force One as he arrives in Green Bay, Wis., on June 25.Carlos Barria / Reuters

If November's election were held this week, polling averages suggest, Joe Biden would sweep President Donald Trump in all six states Trump carried by less than 5 points in 2016: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Biden is also running highly competitively in the four states Trump carried by 5 to 10 points last time: Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and Texas.

That would amount to a Biden landslide of a magnitude of 334 to 413 electoral votes (270 are required to win). But to make matters even worse for Trump, his campaign's early ad spending moves lack discipline.

In June 2016, Hillary Clinton's campaign and an allied super PAC made a costly strategic error when they failed to include Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin in their initial $137 million ad reservations. The Clinton campaign eventually took to the Pennsylvania airwaves, but it ended up spending more in its "reach" states of Arizona and Georgia — playing for an Electoral College blowout — than in Michigan and Wisconsin, which narrowly helped tip the election to Trump.

The Clinton campaign's early calculations were based more on history — a GOP nominee hadn't won Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin since 1988 — than on trends at the time. The campaign wasted millions of dollars in Colorado and Virginia — highly diverse, professional states that had voted Republican more recently but had been moving toward Democrats swiftly and ended up voting for Clinton comfortably. But it failed to take into account that populist candidates and movements had been gaining steam in blue-collar, deindustrializing former bastions of the left — and that Trump could break through in the Upper Midwest.

This time, it's the Trump campaign that might be squandering some of its initial financial advantage by misreading the electoral map. So far, it has laid out millions to play defense in Ohio, Iowa and Georgia — states that may be close today but that are ultimately unlikely to decide the battle for 270 electoral votes.

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According to an Ad Age analysis of data compiled by the tracking firm Kantar/CMAG, the Trump campaign last week pre-booked $99.7 million of fall advertising, with the plurality — $37.5 million — going to Florida. To be sure, there will be many more buys to come. But the $18.4 million the campaign laid out in Ohio, which Trump carried by 8 points in 2016, exceeded the costs of its buys in the true battlegrounds of North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and Michigan.

By contrast, the Biden campaign's first general election TV foray is squarely focused on the six states closest to the "tipping point" of the Electoral College — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — even though polls show him well ahead in all of those states.

In light of polls showing Biden a threat elsewhere, it's understandable that Trump's team would be tempted to put out fires in red states. But what Trump's campaign might not grasp is that in the modern polarized era of American elections, TV ads move numbers only on the margins and individual states don't move independently so much as demographic groups do.

Ohio is demographically similar to Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania: It has an aging, large blue-collar white population, a modest Black population and a relatively low Latino share. But Ohio voted for Trump by 7 to 8 points more than the three other states. If Biden is competitive in Ohio come November, he'll have already won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and almost certainly the presidency — rendering Ohio irrelevant.

Trump still has a path to victory, and it's still possible he could win re-election while losing the popular vote by an even wider margin than in 2016, perhaps as many as 5 million votes. But even that would require either a truly national upturn in voters' attitudes toward him and his handling of the nation's crises or a nosedive in attitudes toward Biden, or both.

Trump's diverting millions to play whack-a-mole in states that voted for him handily last time probably won't cut it.