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Chaos, anxiety and optimism: Inside the Trump campaign's final mad dash

As the president crosses the country, hitting three to five states a day, his campaign has taken on much the same frenetic feel it had in 2016 — with one major difference.
President Trump campaigns in Iowa
President Donald Trump at a rally in Dubuque, Iowa, on Sunday. Carlos Barria / Reuters

WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump has crisscrossed the country in the campaign's waning days, many of his rallies have had a tumultuous, whirlwind feel similar to those of his chaotic first run, with logistical hiccups as disorienting for some volunteers as for visitors.

At a gathering in Omaha, Nebraska, on Tuesday, hundreds of rallygoers were left stranded in the cold for hours because the campaign failed to plan for how buses shuttling them to their cars would get through the post-event traffic. A similar scene played out at an event Saturday in Pennsylvania.

The location of a rally last week in Rochester, Minnesota, was changed multiple times within a confusing 24-hour span, going from the airport to a business and then back to the airport.

And at a stop at The Villages senior community in Florida a week ago, volunteers haphazardly drove golf carts through a massive field and back again, trying to figure out which arrivals were supposed to use which entrances.

But while Trump's mad dash across the country, hitting three to five states a day, may spark comparisons to 2016, staffers and advisers point to a critical difference: Unlike last time, they say, they aren't entering the final hours of the race mentally preparing for all-but-certain defeat, as a more robust campaign operation gives them more concrete hope of pulling off a win — even though asterisks abound for their explanations of precisely how that victory might occur.

During a call with surrogates Sunday, Trump campaign officials said they were optimistic about the early-vote numbers they were seeing in Michigan, where their data indicated that Trump had a 36,000-vote advantage among newly registered voters. They also told allies that their data suggested that they were closing the gap with Democratic nominee Joe Biden in Florida and that they had a chance to flip Nevada.

Trump has touted some early voting data at his rallies.

"Their vote is under what they thought they needed," Trump said of the Democrats. "They are not performing like they should."

But while the mood among some of those inside Trump's orbit is better than it was at this point than four years ago, those involved in the campaign acknowledge that Trump has just as narrow a path as he did then, along with a new set of hurdles to overcome, thanks to his sagging support among groups key to his 2016 victory, such as seniors and women.

Those in Trump's orbit have seen the breaks go his way before. Still, they know that if the polls are right, Trump — who has trailed Biden in nearly every battleground state for much of the year — loses.

"It could be a big Biden landslide, and I wouldn't be that shocked. Or it could be a big Trump victory, and I wouldn't be shocked," said a former 2016 staffer close to the campaign. "I would be mentally prepared for both scenarios. I think both scenarios are plausible."

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Even Trump has seemed to share that ambivalence at times as either that idea or the nonstop rally schedule seems to take a toll on his mood. During his trip Friday to Rochester, his third rally of the day, he spoke for less than 30 minutes, rather than his more typical hour or more. At an event the next morning in Pennsylvania, his remarks were notably lower-key than usual. "We'll see how it goes," he said at a rally in Newtown, Pennsylvania, that afternoon.

Aides have said they are particularly encouraged by internal numbers they are seeing in Florida and Arizona, where the campaign believes it is doing better among seniors and Latinos than the public polls are accounting for. They are also drawing comfort from early turnout numbers in North Carolina and Georgia among Republicans and white non-college-educated voters.

"I just don't think the pollsters' models are accurately capturing what the turnout is going to look like," said a campaign official who has worked on both Trump races and went into Election Day last time expecting a loss. "I think they are missing the rural vote. I think they are not capturing the growth we are seeing in the minority communities."

Pollsters say they have adjusted their methods since 2016, when their results underrepresented turnout among white non-college-educated voters. But Trump's allies still widely maintain that surveys are somehow failing to capture the scale of his support among that group.

Still, for every potential bright spot, allies acknowledge additional dim ones. The biggest concern aides consistently cite is the trio of Rust Belt states that cemented his surprise win four years ago: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Even if Trump is able to hold on to Florida, Arizona and North Carolina, as well as more traditionally solid Republican states that polls now indicate could be toss-ups, like Georgia and Texas, he can afford to lose only two of the three states — which is why he has made more than a dozen stops in the three states over the past week and has more planned in the campaign's final hours.

But while Trump continues to hold rallies in Michigan and Wisconsin, even his advisers who say he can pull off a victory on Election Day view winning those two states as a long shot, with polls consistently showing him trailing in both, sometime outside the polls' margins of error.

That leaves Trump to rely heavily on Pennsylvania, where he held three rallies Saturday. An outside adviser has encouraged the campaign to pull resources from Michigan and Wisconsin and pour them into Pennsylvania — even though poll numbers have also shown Trump consistently trailing there.

If Trump were to pull off another come-from-behind victory, those close to the campaign say, it will likely be because of the work the campaign has been doing for years to identify and engage new supporters, get them registered to vote and turn them out in the final days. The campaign is banking on even more white non-college-educated voters to turn out for Trump than in 2016 to help offset losses among other groups that strongly backed his run last time.

"If we win, it is going to be in large part [due] to the get-out-the-vote program Chris Carr and his team put together," the former 2016 staffer said of the campaign's top battleground strategist.

After the 2016 victory, this staffer said, post-campaign analysis focused on the impact of digital guru Brad Parscale, who went on to lead the entire re-election effort for most of the 2020 cycle. "I think this time they will look back and say it was registering voters and turning them out," the former staffer said.