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For both candidates, the path winds through fewer than a dozen battleground states, takes detours for three debates and traverses a political landscape with dangerous cultural land mines

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David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.

It’s six weeks from the American presidential election and the issues in the campaign are clear, the states being contested are clear, the profiles of the candidates are clear. But this, too, is clear: There is a path to victory for either President Donald Trump or former vice-president Joe Biden.

For both of them, that path winds through fewer than a dozen battleground states, takes detours for three debates and traverses a political landscape with dangerous cultural land mines.

“This is a campaign like no other,” Democratic Governor John Carney of Delaware said in an interview. “There are multiple moving parts, many uncertainties, a virus – and there is a protest movement by a young generation that is shaping a campaign by two candidates from an older generation.”

But that generational tension is not the only division. The candidates are straining to reach an electorate badly divided by race, gender, issues and economic status.

“America may have been polarized for decades but this year it is even more polarized than ever,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, a Tufts University political scientist. “There are not that many undecided voters and the campaigns know that. Some voters in other elections held back and waited for more information. This isn’t the case this time.”

Here, based on interviews with top strategists of the two campaigns and with political professionals, are the roadmaps Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are using to reach the ancient swearing-in ceremony that will be conducted on the West Front of the Capitol at noon on Jan. 20, 2021.

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to supporters at Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee, Wisc., on Sept. 17.Scott Olson/Getty Images/Getty Images


Mr. Trump is seeking to pull off a challenging double axel of American politics, remaining in charge of the government of the United States while running against the government of the United States. No one has ever even attempted this move. But then again, no president has ever been remotely like Mr. Trump.

That Trump difference – in every respect, he is a president without precedent – is what allowed him in 2016 to capture the support of voters who ordinarily would vote Democratic: working Americans without a college degree, the backbone of the New Deal coalition that sent seven Democratic presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama to the White House but who also gave Ronald Reagan a hard look in 1980 and 1984.

"When you consider the Rust Belt states in this election, you see the sons and daughters of the Reagan Democrats,'' said John Brabender, a media strategist working with the Trump campaign. “They feel both parties left them on the economic battlefield and neither stood up for them. They care about paying too much taxes, they worry that people here illegally have more benefits than they do and they believe that trade deals hurt them. The race comes down to them. The President needs to make a strong case that he has stood up for them.”

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Trump supporters cheer him on at his stop in Mosinee.Evan Vucci/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

And while a president might ordinarily be seen as personifying Washington – that was the case for Roosevelt and even for Mr. Reagan, who won his first term as an outsider but couldn’t plausibly do so when he sought a second term – Mr. Trump instead has cultivated the profile of a Washington outsider. His argument will be simple: The Washington swamp is so deep that it will require two terms to drain it completely.

This election will test whether the American public agrees. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this summer found that the rate of Americans who prefer a candidate who challenges governing norms, a fair assessment of the President, is about the same as the rate who prefer a candidate who would bring "competence and compassion to the way the government operates,'' a fair approximation of the Biden appeal.

The irony of the Trump campaign is that while he is portraying himself as the sentinel of change, there is no change in his strategy: Talk bluntly. Disparage his opponent. Refuse to be shackled by political customs.

And consistent with his image as an outsider, his strategy also involves bringing into politics, and ultimately into the voting booth, men and women who, like him, haven’t been involved in politics before. Three out of five of those who did not vote in swing-state Pennsylvania, for example, are white Americans without college degrees – the very definition of the Trump base. The Trump team has them in its sights.

For them, the coronavirus is not the pre-eminent issue. The economy is. Mr. Trump plans to emphasize how strong the job market was before the virus hit earlier this year and to argue that in a second term he can restore economic health to these very voters, many of them now out of work – even as he asserts that only his tough, troops-on-the-ground approach can restore order in the cities.

“They have to win the economic case,” said Rob Stutzman, a veteran GOP consultant and strategist for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “And they need to capitalize on the chaos in the streets without going over the top and creating a culture war. But it is up to Trump. He has to stay disciplined, stay on the message and not get in the way.”

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Factory workers in Clyde, Ohio, listen to Mr. Trump speak this past August.Joshua Roberts/Reuters/Reuters

That, of course, is the biggest challenge facing the Trump campaign. The President bridles when strategists attempt to impose discipline on him, arguing he won the White House without their help and he prevailed in 2016 by following his instincts: populist, pugnacious and pugilistic. But facing the headwinds of an ailing economy and a population reeling from COVID-19, instincts may not be enough. The President’s top strategists are struggling to convince him of that. “In the George W. Bush campaign, we believed that an imperfect strategy flawlessly executed was better than a strategy that changed month to month in search of perfection,” said Mark McKinnon, a GOP strategist who is not working for the Trump campaign. “The Trump campaign has no set strategy. So my advice to Republicans is plant the flag somewhere, salute and march in unison from now until November.”

And when the campaign marches, it will likely march through familiar territory. It doesn’t have to worry about most of the farm states or the northern plains; they will be safely Trump territory in November, with the possible exception of Iowa, where corn prices have plummeted, a freak “derecho wind” storm has devastated the fall harvest and resentment over Trump agricultural trade policies linger. This time he will have to defend Georgia, Texas and Ohio, all of which are states he won in 2016 but are now within the sights, and within the grasp, of Mr. Biden.

But in all this, Mr. Trump faces a delicate balancing act.

His instinct is to emphasize the urban unrest, especially in Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wis., and his strategists know that many of the target white, non-college-educated voters respond to that. Vice-President Mike Pence launched the offensive when he attended a Blue Lives Matter rally in Philadelphia in July that expressed support for police officers. The President’s early-September visit to beleaguered Kenosha, where he praised law-enforcement officers and derided Democrats, reinforced that message.

At the same time, Mr. Trump’s efforts on behalf of Black Americans was one of the surprising and more effective elements of the Republican National Convention in August. If he peels off some Black votes in swing states, he could frustrate Mr. Biden, who is depending on support from Black voters to turn states such as North Carolina Democratic and perhaps even to build support in Cleveland and Milwaukee, both in states Hillary Clinton lost in 2016.

“If that is the case,” said David Azerrad, the Montreal-born research fellow at Hillsdale College, “then the Democrats are in real trouble and it will have important implications for the future of the GOP.”

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A mobile billboard in Kenosha, Wisc., calls on voters to 'reject Trump's violence' during his visit to the restive city in early September.Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for MoveOn/Getty Images

Then there is the prospect of an October Surprise, a campaign disruption that is potentially part of the Trump’s arsenal for which the Biden team has no defence. The most likely candidate: a dramatic Presidential announcement that a COVID-19 vaccine is at hand, the product of Mr. Trump’s determination to return the country to its normal social and commercial patterns.

Apart from that, Republican strategists believe, Mr. Trump needs to emphasize his mainstream appeal.

“During that convention week we saw normal, real people showing how thankful they are for the President and his policies,” said Alice Stewart, who was communications director for the 2016 presidential campaign of GOP Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. “That gets lost in his offensive remarks, his off-putting demeanour and his tweets. But he has appeal for the common man and they have to stress that.”

And just as Canada’s Conservative Party was hampered in the 2019 election by its reluctance to take up climate change, the Republican Party – under whose leadership the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established – has failed to address the issue. More than half of young Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center, believe Washington is doing too little to combat global warming.

“Young Republicans are hungry for a new vision of climate change proposals, ones that are rooted in market-based solutions and limited, not overreaching, government,” according to Danielle Butcher, the executive vice-president and chief operating officer at the American Conservation Coalition. So far that is the road not taken for Republicans. But then again, nothing along the road Mr. Trump has travelled is familiar to Republicans.

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An image of Mr. Biden appears on a TV behind Mr. Trump aboard Air Force One after his Wisconsin rally on Sept. 17.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images


Just as Mr. Trump and his political strategists are looking to the past to discern the path to the White House, Mr. Biden and his team are doing so as well. But while the Trump team looks to 2016, the Biden team is focusing on 2018.

That was the year that the Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives, the year that women voted Democratic in droves, the year that suburban voters provided the margin of victory for a party desperate to regain power in Washington.

“Coming out of the 2018 midterms, and the Democratic victory in regaining control of the House, Joe Biden felt it was clear that part of the path to victory in 2020 was to consolidate and build on the gains Democrats made with women voters, particularly suburban women,” said Anita Dunn, Mr. Biden’s top strategist.

But that’s not all. The Biden campaign believes it can deny Mr. Trump a second term by arguing that the President’s performance facing COVID-19 demonstrates that, while he lacks honesty and character, his biggest vulnerability is his lack of leadership. “Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the President’s catastrophic failure to deal with it,” Ms. Dunn asserted, “seniors are more in play than they’ve been for two decades. And of course, motivating and persuading younger voters remains a key as well.”

Right now, the Biden campaign’s focus is on six major battleground states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, Florida and North Carolina. Mr. Trump won them all in 2016. Mr. Biden’s team calculates that if he wins half of them, he can win the election. His prospects in each are promising – but not reassuring.

In Arizona, for example, the situation is complex; Mr. Trump won the state by 3.5 percentage points in 2016 and Arizona has been the setting for contentious battles over immigration and provisions requiring education to be conducted only in English, not in Spanish. That has created a progressive backlash whose power will be tested in November. In 2018, one in seven Republican women voted for Democrat Kyrsten Sinema for Senate. Cindy McCain, the widow of popular Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, a virulent critic of Mr. Trump, actually spoke at the Democratic National Convention.

The Democrats also have high hopes for Ohio, which winning Republican presidential candidates have never lost. Sherrod Brown, Ohio’s Democratic Senator, says he believes the state is primed to break free from the Trump column.

“Trump has consistently betrayed workers, attacked unions, opposed increases in the minimum wage,” he said. “We will push that theme through surrogates and through media. Ohio is ripe for this message. Last time, Republicans stuck with Trump. This time, we have to be sure traditional Democrats don’t go with him.”

That, of course, is Job One for the Biden campaign.

“We absolutely must pay attention to the blue-collar guys and gals who have drifted away from us,” said Bill Carrick, a Democratic political consultant. “We need to jazz up and energize the Black and Latinos but also nurture the suburban voters who are so dramatically trending Democratic in recent elections, especially women.”

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Mr. Biden greets a member of the military at the Sept. 11 memorial ceremony in New York.AMR ALFIKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Like the Republicans, the Democrats plan in the coming weeks to use some of the “ordinary folks” who spoke for their candidate at the convention.

“The stars have aligned in a certain way that Joe’s personal compassion and the focus of ordinary folks and kitchen-table issues are the things of the moment,” said Mr. Carney, the Governor of Delaware. “Trump hopes to do multiplication by division. It seems kind of anti-American. That is the contrast he needs to present.”

That is why the first major Biden live campaign speech since the Democratic National Convention came in vitally important Pennsylvania, in an old manufacturing centre in a section of gritty Pittsburgh that once housed a major steel complex. Mr. Biden – University of Delaware class of 1965 and the first nominee of his party in three dozen years not to have an Ivy League degree – often has used Pittsburgh for campaign events designed to show his identity with blue-collar voters and to appeal to the workers who defected to Mr. Trump in 2016.

And when he appeared there, not far from where the Pennsylvania economy has been revived by the natural gas industry, he asserted, "I am not banning fracking no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.''

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A supporter holds a sign near Mill 19 in Pittsburgh on Aug. 31, when Mr. Biden spoke there.Alex Wong/Getty Images/Getty Images

In that Pittsburgh appearance, he employed two of the three inoculations the Biden team plans this fall.

The first was to rebut Mr. Trump’s efforts to portray him as a dangerous extremist allied with violent protesters; Mr. Biden argued that while he supports Black Lives Matter, he doesn’t believe violence promotes change. This month he is mounting an advertising offensive that features this line from a campaign speech: “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting.”

The second was to decry socialism, the label Mr. Trump hopes to pin on Mr. Biden, who if anything is more vulnerable to charges that, as the senior senator from Delaware – where more than 60 per cent of Fortune 500 companies are incorporated – he is too close to establishment capitalism. Mr. Biden’s answer came as a question: “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?”

The third is to publicize the notion of a “Red Mirage” – a possible election night phenomenon that might suggest a Trump victory before mail ballots are completely counted. A study by the Hawkfish agency, a group funded by Trump foe and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, found that 69 per cent of Democrats plan to vote by mail, as opposed to 19 per cent of Republicans who plan to do so. In vital Wisconsin, according to the respected Marquette Law School Poll, two-thirds of those expecting to vote by mail favour Mr. Biden while Mr. Trump has a commanding 25-percentage-point lead among those expecting to vote in person.

The result could be an apparent Trump victory on election night, but a real Biden victory days later after mail ballots are included – a perfect circumstance for Mr. Trump to claim foul play, unless the Democrats prepare the public for this eventuality. There’s not much Mr. Biden’s team can do about a Trump October Surprise, but they can set the groundwork for battling a November Surprise, the prospect of the President declaring victory on the basis of incomplete and misleading results.

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Mr. Biden boards a plane at Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin, Pa.Alex Wong/Getty Images/Getty Images

One remaining uncertainty is how much Mr. Biden will travel. Even veteran Democratic political advisers such as Mr. Carrick say personal appearances may be overrated, especially amid a pandemic. “Campaigning in person is nostalgic,” he said. “We don’t win elections this time being in the farmers' market shaking hands with people. We are romanticizing the old ways of doing things. Those days are over. And besides, the candidates never meet real people in a general election anyway.”

But the Trump team realizes that if its candidate uses his own public appearances to claim Mr. Biden is isolated from the American people and afraid to venture among the people he intends to lead, it may be necessary for Mr. Biden to hit the campaign trail more often, especially in states such as Wisconsin, where the public this year expects a Democratic nominee to visit. The campaign plans to deploy Senator Kamala Harris of California, the party’s vice-presidential nominee, in North Carolina, Georgia and other states where Black turnout is essential for the party to prevail.

“Biden and Harris will travel – if it is safe, if they can do it responsibly, and above all, listening to public health officials,” said Ms. Dunn, the chief campaign strategist. “Biden has modelled what a responsible president would do in leading during this pandemic since March and that will continue to be how we make the travel decisions.”

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