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Trump Campaign Bets on Late Push in Democratic States

Donald Trump's campaign makes moves into Democratic states, is it a strategy borne out of strength or desperation?
Image: Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak to a campaign rally, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Geneva, Ohio.Evan Vucci / AP

Facing a narrow path to 270 electoral votes, Donald Trump’s campaign is scheduling events and buying ad in new states that have swung Democratic in recent years.

On Tuesday, the campaign announced it was purchasing $25 million in TV ads for the final week in blue states like New Mexico and Michigan -- both of which Trump has visited in the last few days -- along with more obvious swing states like Ohio and Florida. They also are staying on the air in battleground states like Virginia and Colorado where the campaign has struggled to stay competitive in public polls.

With one week to go, the question is whether this is a move borne out of strength or desperation.

The Trump campaign has argued that the moves reflect their confidence that recent news of further FBI inquiry into emails by Clinton aide Huma Abedin obtained from an investigation into estranged husband Anthony Weiner has set the stage for a breakthrough.

“While Mr. Trump continues to climb in the polls and accelerate outreach in states like Michigan and New Mexico that are rarely won by Republican Presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton is preoccupied fighting the sitting FBI Director and President Obama over yet another email scandal,” Trump’s digital director Brad Parscale said in a statement announcing the buy.

As Democrats and some Republicans were quick to note, though, there’s a long tradition of campaigns behind in the polls making a last-second move into unusual states.

“I think it’s a reflection of how weak his prospects are as opposed to any sign of strength,” Mitch Stewart, who served as Obama’s battleground director in the last presidential campaign. “It reminds me of Romney making late plays in Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2012.”

Regardless of the motive, the Clinton campaign and its allies made clear they wouldn’t let Trump push into states uncontested. On Tuesday, they announced six-figure buys in Michigan, New Mexico, Virginia, and Colorado. Priorities USA, a top Democratic super PAC, is also going on the air in Colorado, Michigan and Wisconsin, where the Clinton campaign recently bought ad time.

“The Trump campaign claims their path to White House is through states like these but we’re going to make sure those doors remain shut,” Clinton campaign spokesman Jesse Ferguson said in a statement.

State and national polling has been relatively scarce since the news of the FBI investigation broke. While there have been no substantive revelations concerning Clinton’s use of a private account, the news of the new emails has fueled a partisan war over director James Comey’s decision to make the discovery public.

What we know so far about the political fallout is mixed: An NBC News|SurveyMonkey poll showed the race unchanged and Clinton holding a 6-point lead, but other polls show Trump gaining in recent days, even before the FBI story. And a Washington Post/ABC daily tracking poll even gave Trump a 1-point lead on Tuesday.

Clinton still maintains a lead in national polling averages as well as key states like Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Colorado that would put her past the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. But Democrats have expressed some concern that the news may hurt them in key Senate races.

Trump spokesman Jason Miller told WABC last week that their campaign’s polling showed a “dead heat” in both Michigan and New Mexico. But a battleground map sent to supporters in a fundraising email on Tuesday showed New Mexico still blue, while Michigan was a “toss up” state. And it said that Trump was “close” in states like Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Colorado rather than winning.

Trump campaign sources told NBC New that while the latest ad buy reflected improved polling in some states like New Mexico, the main purpose was to project confidence in the final days by going “on offense” rather than be portrayed as fighting to gain ground in existing battleground states.

Jon Cavanagh, a pollster with Michigan-based EPIC-MRA, sounded confused by Trump’s recent interest in the state given that surveys have consistently showed him down throughout the race by between 5 and 11 points. “I’m not real sure what to make of it,” he said. He noted an online poll by Fox 2 Detroit/Mitchell Poll conducted since the FBI news found Clinton up by 6, consistent with their findings the week before and polling averages of the state.

New Mexico, where polling has been infrequent, may be even more of a reach thanks to its substantial Latino population. Trump's longstanding calls for a border wall and mass deportations have largely derailed outreach efforts and early vote patterns in several states already show a surge in Latino turnout.

“Trump pressing into those states now is the political equivalent of throwing a Hail Mary from his own five yard line,” Republican pollster Chris Wilson said in an e-mail. “For a Hail Mary to work, you have to have at least moved the ball down the field prior to the desperate throw.”

Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan GOP chairman, argued that the move into Michigan and other reach states made sense even if Trump didn’t ultimately carry them. Holding events in an iconic industrial state provided a good symbolic backdrop for his populist message that could help fire up his base in neighboring Rust Belt states like Ohio.

“When Trump goes to Colorado, New Mexico, and Michigan and is talking to working class, blue collar Reagan Democrats, that crosses state lines,” he said.

So far Trump’s efforts to build a winning coalition have been stymied by his deep unpopularity with suburban voters in battleground states who have often voted Republican in the past. But by keeping his core constituencies fired up, he could at least keep himself in position for an upset if some of those reluctant conservative-leaning voters “come home” to the GOP at the least minute. With over 26 million votes already turned in, though, they’ll need to break soon for Trump to have any chance.

NBC News' Katy Tur contributed to this report.