The Democrat’s team telegraphs a red-state push and then cheers Trump’s detour outside the battleground zone.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign feels confident. So confident that behind closed doors her team is taking some credit for forcing Donald Trump to seemingly defend territory that Republicans almost never lose.
After weeks of Brooklyn telegraphing a competitive race in traditionally red states and making public moves that look like initial investments — boosting staff, holding fundraisers, and promising more investments — Trump is now campaigning in Arizona, which has voted Republican in 15 of the last 16 elections, while his running mate goes to Georgia, a state that’s gone red in seven of the last eight cycles.
That’s a deployment of precious resources away from swing states that Trump must win to make the Electoral College math work in his favor.
In private, members of Clinton’s team draw a direct line between their activity in those states and Trump’s worries there. In public, Democrats are starting to cheer the success.
“This would be the equivalent of Hillary having to campaign in Massachusetts or having to campaign in California, except [to raise] money,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s campaign and White House teams who remains close to the family’s operation. “Either he has fallen for it hook, line, and sinker, or there are substantive concerns given his changes in some of the margins within specific cohorts of voters. Either way, it’s good news.”
Certainly, Trump is hitting the critical swing states too. He has a stop in Ohio on Thursday while Mike Pence had scheduled stops in North Carolina and Florida on Tuesday and Wednesday. But with 69 days to go and polls showing Clinton with beyond-the-margin leads in nine of the 11 states POLITICO identified as battlegrounds, Trump can little afford detours.
Clinton’s camp is now intensifying the effort to spread him thin — a push that has already landed running mate Tim Kaine in a handful of red states, put both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in Atlanta to raise money for the Democratic nominee this month, and seen the campaign join the Democratic National Committee in circulating a direct mail piece — obtained by POLITICO — in Utah, a state that has voted for every Republican nominee since Barry Goldwater.
“You care about your community and the future of this country,” reads the mailer, featuring a concerned-looking woman holding a mug on the front. “That’s why the thought of Donald Trump as President is so alarming.”
But there’s a reason the Democratic cheering has remained behind closed doors, even beyond the risk of publicly giving away their game: Trump’s irregular travel comes at a rough stretch for Clinton, whose team has not capitalized on her advantage by sending the candidate into the battleground states.
Earlier in the summer while Trump was accusing Clinton of “hiding,” she was holding lower-profile public events in states like Florida and Colorado, looking to generate positive local coverage while cable news went wall-to-wall with Trump’s controversies. But more recently, apart from one headline-grabbing speech in Nevada last week and an address in Ohio on Wednesday, Clinton has almost exclusively stuck to private fundraising events in the liberal strongholds of Massachusetts, California, and New York — all while dogged by questions about the Clinton Foundation.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that Democrats are cheered by Trump’s schedule, which is keeping him from focusing more narrowly on his for-the-win map.
To Clinton’s allies, Trump’s decision to hold Wednesday’s immigration speech in Arizona rather than Nevada, where the presidential race is much tighter and a state the Republican likely needs to carry to have a shot at the White House, underscores just how distracted he is by Democrats’ activities in red states.
Even Trump advisors defend the candidates’ travel, but acknowledge it’s an unorthodox time to be going into deep-red territory.
Pence “is doing fundraising among other things, which is important,” said former Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, a campaign advisor, of the vice presidential nominee’s trip to the state — which had three public, non-fundraising events attached to it. “I just think that by sending Trump down [to heavily Republican areas] now, it’s out of the way. But Trump has a 50-state vision.”
If anything reveals the lack of aggression with which Clinton is for now approaching the red states it’s the lack of ad buys.
In Utah, for example, Clinton placed an op-ed in the Deseret News a day before her husband raised cash in Park City. Before long, top policy aide Jake Sullivan stopped through Salt Lake City to open an office there. But Clinton’s team has yet to drop a dime on television advertising there, nor has it in Arizona. There, it’s been involved with helping organize the state party’s field presence on the ground, said Rep. Ruben Gallego.
“It’s a state that elected the alpha and beta forms of Trump: [former] Governor [Jan] Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio,” he said ahead of Trump’s speech there. “The fact that he’s coming here shows they’re worried, and they should be worried.”
(“Now you’re just being silly,” said Trump campaign communications advisor Jason Miller. “Wednesday is an illegal immigration speech, so of course we’re going to do it in a border state.”)
Such head fakes are classic campaign tactics, but they rarely appear to have the immediate effect of sending one’s opponent or running mate to a targeted state.
It’s true that Trump is still likely to win Georgia, Arizona, and Utah. But, in addition to his and Pence’s travel, he is now spending critical campaign cash on operatives in Georgia, and even in South Carolina — where a pair of Democratic Party-sponsored polls have shown another unexpectedly tight contest.
Meanwhile, even Clinton herself has signaled that she wants the expansion to continue. She wants to win, she privately told campaign donors in Easthampton, N.Y. on Monday, “as resoundingly as possible.”