Donald Trump recently canceled a campaign appearance planned for Upstate New York on Thursday, the latest sign he is backing away from his initial intention to contest states that have not been in play for a generation.
Reports from the Trump camp suggest the Republican nominee for president will concentrate almost exclusively on Pennsylvania, Ohio, and one or two other states that would deliver an Electoral College victory by the barest of margins in November.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to focus on just those three states,” said a political expert.
On the surface, it makes some sense. Why waste time in a state like New York, which he is never going to win, when every vote in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida will have outsized influence over the outcome? But there is a danger in writing off most of the country this early in the campaign.
“As much as I would tell you I’d like it, for obvious reasons because it’d be paying attention to my state, I do think that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to focus on just those three states,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. “There may be a wider path.”
While his GOP primary opponents built traditional campaigns focused on winning endorsements from local leaders and building voter-turnout operations, Trump flew above them, dominating the field with wall-to-wall media coverage everywhere he went. Replicating that strategy would be harder in a general election, where airtime will be more balanced. Still, with the modern national media landscape, Trump can reach any audience he wants — wherever he speaks.
So while it makes sense to air campaign ads in vote-rich swing states and make plenty of visits to them, Trump can address the job anxiety concerns of working-class voters in Pennsylvania just as easily while addressing an audience in Milwaukee as he can in Pittsburgh. Voters worried about Syrian refugees and terrorism in Florida will get Trump’s message even if he is talking to voters in Maine.
One of the few clear advantages Trump enjoys over Hillary Clinton is his willingness to make himself accessible to the media. While Clinton is reluctant to subject herself to questioning from the press, preferring situations she can tightly control, Trump rarely turns down interviews or ducks questions.
While that sometimes gets him in trouble, it could allow him to dominate Clinton in local and regional media outlets. That advantage would largely be neutralized if he spends most of his time in two or three states.
Democrats have a built-in advantage: The party has won 18 states with 242 Electoral College votes in every election since 1992. That puts Clinton 28 shy of victory. Most experts believe Trump must turn Florida and Ohio, which — assuming he wins the states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012 — would put him within 17 votes of the magic number. Several battleground states have trended more Democratic since 1992. But Pennsylvania has moved in the other direction, making the Keystone State and its 20 votes an attractive target.
Madonna said while it makes little sense for Trump to burn unnecessary resources in California or New York, he should not foreclose alternatives to Pennsylvania, which last voted Republican in a presidential election in 1988. He noted that Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Colorado — all states where Republicans have been competitive or Trump has polled well — have more electoral votes combined than the Keystone State.
“I don’t know that you need to be a genius to figure this out,” he said.
Candice Nelson, academic director of the Campaign Management Institute at American University in Washington, said Trump’s narrower focus may be a concession to finances. Clinton has dramatically out-raised Trump and had more than twice as much money on hand at the end of June than he did, according to campaign finance reports.
“It may be a resource question,” she said. “He may have thought expanding the map was a good idea but then realized he doesn’t have the finances.”
By all accounts, Trump got a late start in building a first-rate campaign organization at the state level. It is logical to focus those efforts on the handful of make-or-break states. Nelson it would be easy and relatively inexpensive to add additional campaign stops to the itinerary if opinion shifts.
“He could do that later on if it looks like states that are not in play are coming into play,” she said.
Nelson said voters in many states are used to not seeing campaign ads and other activity. But Trump will raise eyebrows if he skips states that are accustomed to highly visible presidential campaigns, she said.
“If a state that saw a lot of activity suddenly didn’t, they might wonder why,” she said.