The two American presidential candidates are, to be sure, reflecting their personal and political styles. But what may be more significant is that in 2020 they are conducting mirror images of the campaigns of 2016.
Indeed, this year Mr. Trump is running the kind of base-oriented, cautious campaign Hillary Clinton ran against him four years ago – while Mr. Biden is running the kind of audacious outreach that marked the Manhattan tycoon’s first campaign.
Former vice-president Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris visited a union training centre in Arizona, with the Democratic presidential nominee telling a small crowd wearing masks and sitting six feet apart, “Americans deserve a president who understands what they are going through. The last thing they need right now is a president who exacerbates the problems.”
Just days later, standing before a big crowd in the third-fastest shrinking city in the United States – a one-time steelmaking and coal-mining centre that he had visited four years earlier – President Donald Trump this week thundered that his rivals were “hellbent on destroying everything we love and cherish” and implored, “You damn well better vote for me, Pennsylvania.”
And so, like Ms. Clinton, who confined much of her White House campaign events to safe, welcoming crowds, the President is campaigning principally in friendly areas – such as here, in Cambria County, where he cruised to victory with the astonishing rate of 67 per cent of the vote four years ago. And as he does so, Mr. Biden, like Mr. Trump in 2016, is campaigning in places customarily hostile to his progressive portfolio of positions – such as Arizona, which the Democrats have carried only once in the past two-thirds of a century. In 2020, the Biden-Harris ticket could narrowly win this sunbelt state.
The bottom line: Mr. Trump – perhaps to salve his spirits, perhaps to generate film clips of him standing amid the adulation of adoring crowds – is campaigning in front of his base. Mr. Biden – perhaps sensing the possibility of toppling the President, perhaps forcing Mr. Trump to spend time and money in places he won four years ago – is reaching beyond the Democrats' redoubts on the east and west coasts and targeting states where Mr. Trump prevailed in 2016.
The fast-moving dynamics of the 2020 campaign suggest that this pattern may even be reinforced in the final fortnight of the contest.
Two polls this week, for example, put Mr. Biden ahead in Florida and one puts him in the lead in North Carolina; both were Trump states in 2016 and North Carolina has rested safely in the GOP column in 11 of the last 13 elections. The Delawarean seems poised to prevail in two congressional districts, in Maine and Nebraska, that award separate electoral votes and that Mr. Trump won four years ago. The spouses of Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris turned up in Nebraska late last month. No Democratic presidential nominee has set foot in the state – which has voted Democratic only once in a presidential election after the Roosevelt 1936 landslide – in decades.
Mr. Trump’s visit here in west-central Pennsylvania did bring him to the far extremes of the Pittsburgh media market in a state that is a principal battleground in November’s election. But his trip replicated how four years ago Ms. Clinton campaigned in comfortable settings in Pennsylvania and didn’t travel – despite the insistent urging of Bill Clinton, who twice carried the Johnstown area Mr. Trump visited – to the hardscrabble former Keystone State steel and mining centres that helped to provide Mr. Trump with his margin of victory here.
“Hillary for the most part didn’t leave the safe areas in Pittsburgh, let alone in Allegheny County,” Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto said in an interview. “She could have been in the same TV market and left the safe areas to campaign where she needed the votes.”
Instead, Mr. Clinton travelled on his own to Aliquippa, a southwestern Pennsylvania community where a Jones and Laughlin Steel Company mill on the Ohio River that once employed 9,000 people was demolished in 1988. “We want you to be part of our America,” Mr. Clinton said about two weeks before the election.
This week, Mr. Trump was in effect replicating Ms. Clinton’s 2016 campaign itinerary with an appearance here that provided him the forum to speak of “clean, beautiful coal” and to charge that “the Democrat party hates fracking,” the process of natural-gas extraction that has spread throughout the state in recent years. He likely won no new supporters.
“The Trump campaign is not building out from the base,” said Dana Brown, a political scientist at Pittsburgh’s Chatham University. “He’s trying to shore up votes that he already has. At this time in the calendar, you should not be trying just to turn out your base. It is not the sign of a winning campaign.”
In contrast, Mr. Biden in recent days swung by train through Ohio, where two Quinnipiac University polls since Sept. 24 have shown the race tied in a state where Mr. Trump, like every Republican candidate in U.S. history who has won the White House, prevailed.
Moreover, the most recent Quinnipiac poll showed Mr. Biden with a 7-per-cent advantage in Georgia, where he was tied with Mr. Trump as recently as Sept. 30. Mr. Trump won Georgia in 2016 by more than five percentage points, but Mr. Biden opened an advertising offensive there with three different television spots and dispatched his wife to the state this week for appearances in Atlanta. Conscious that Mr. Trump has alienated military families by dismissing war dead as “losers,” Jill Biden also appeared near Fort Benning, home to 22,778 active duty military personnel, 54,108 military family members and 13,296 military retires.
Mr. Biden’s rail trip through Ohio took him into southwestern Pennsylvania, where he was buttonholed by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a Democrat who helped build Ms. Clinton’s 16-point bulge in Allegheny County four years ago. “This,” Mr. Fitzgerald – confident he could replicate if not exceed the 2016 Democratic advantage – told Mr. Biden, “should be the last time I see you in Allegheny County.”
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