Go big or play it safe? Electoral map widens for Joe Biden and Democrats, but with risk

WASHINGTON – From the start of the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden's simplest path to victory always ran though Big Ten country: Flip Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three Rust Belt states that Hillary Clinton narrowly lost in 2016. 

Now, with Trump sliding in polls during a tumultuous year defined by the coronavirus pandemic, the electoral map has expanded for the presumptive Democratic nominee. Not only is the former vice president leading in all six states widely considered top battlegrounds, but poll shows him competitive in states that were once considered locks for Trump: Texas, Georgia, Ohio, Iowa and even Missouri.

It has the Trump campaign on defense, airing ads already in Georgia, Iowa and Ohio, all of which he won handily, and reserving $5 million in television airtime in both Ohio and Iowa, according to the campaign research firm Advertising Analytics.

Yet as more paths have opened for the Biden campaign to reach 270 in the electoral college – with Texas' 38 electors a chance to upend both the race and reshape presidential politics for years to come – it comes with risk. Playing offense by pumping money into these states would come at the expense of resources elsewhere, namely Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where Clinton's margins of defeat were each less than 1 percentage point. 

For the Biden campaign, it's an electoral dilemma. 

Democrats crave a knock-out punch – a victory that delivers a clear statement against the Trump era, turns red states blue, makes it harder for Trump to dispute the results, hands Democrats redistricting powers in state legislatures and gives them control of the U.S. Senate, where they need to pick up three or four seats to take over.

Some party loyalists argue Biden could help that cause by expanding into Georgia, Iowa and Texas, which each have competitive Senate races featuring Republican incumbents. The same dynamics are true in North Carolina and Arizona, where Biden is already investing.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden campaigns in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, on July 9, 2020.

At the same time, Biden can't afford to spend lavishly in states he can't win. 

"I think the lesson from 2016 is to make absolutely sure you've locked down the electoral college states that get to the magic number before you even think about it," veteran Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said. 

It's not only a matter financial resources resources, he said, but the time required of candidates and surrogates. A substantial financial play in Texas, for example, could put Trump on his heels in a Republican stronghold, but at what costs elsewhere?

"This is where you're the one that falls into the trap: You're throwing 50 million bucks at Texas because you think, 'Wow, we'll make (Trump) spend $80 million here,' but that's $50 million it turns out you'd rather have spent in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania," Trippi said. "The most important thing is the electoral college discipline. That's what we lacked I think in 2016."

'That’s not cautious. It’s smart.'

Biden's strong polling, ahead by double digits nationally in some surveys, comes as Trump has lost footing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, economic struggles and racial unrest nationally. 

The New York Times reported Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who is among the contenders to be Biden's running mate, is pushing the Biden campaign to invest in her state, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is leading the pitch for the Buckeye State. The Times reported Democratic leaders in reliably Republican Texas urged Biden campaign manager Jen Dillon O'Malley to make Texas a priority during a phone conference last week.

Making its first television advertising push in Texas, the Biden campaign Tuesday released a 60-second spot aimed at the state's spike in coronavirus cases. "This virus is tough, but Texas is tougher," Biden says in the ad that concludes: "Stay safe wear a mask." The Biden campaign said it paid "mid six figures" to run the ads, a relatively small amount, suggesting the Biden campaign is still testing the waters in the Lone Star State.

"They're very surprised at what they're seeing coming out of Texas," Texas Democatic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told USA TODAY, recounting the conversation with the campaign. "They expected Biden to be competitive in Texas. They did not expect that consistently the polls would show him either tied or ahead of Trump."

A Dallas Morning News poll released Sunday found Biden ahead of Trump 46%-41% 

Hinojosa said he understands the reluctance to invest in Texas because of its enormous size and lack of recent Democratic success in presidential races. The last Democrat to win Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976. But besides polling, he pointed to other dynamics he said show Texas Democrats are ready to deliver high – seven congressional races in Republican-leaning districts where Democrats are competitive and Democrats in need of only nine seats to take control of the state House.

"We are more organized now than we've ever been before," Hinojosa said. "I think that at the end of the day, they're going to make a decision that they can't ignore these consistent polls that are coming out of Texas."

More:‘Grim resolve’: Biden is up big and the Senate is in sight, but Democrats still haunted by fear of letdown

While Democratic prospects are the highest in Texas and Georgia in a generation, former advisor for President Barack Obama and longtime Democratic strategist David Axelrod pushed back at expanding too aggressively. 

"First rule or presidential campaign planning: lock down the states you MUST have by making sure your operations and ads are funded there for duration," Axelrod tweeted.  "THEN you expand to more ambitious targets. That’s not cautious. It’s smart."

He added: "And before you commit to compete for a state, you had better be clear about what the cost of competing to WIN that state would be. Texas, Ohio and Georgia are all the large states with expensive and extensive media markets."

Former Clinton campaign manager warns of race's volatility 

Despite topping Trump in campaign fundraising for two straight months, the president holds a sizable cash-on-hand advantage over Biden.

Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager said flatly, "President Trump will win these states" when asked about Democratic hopes in Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and Texas.

Complicating the Biden campaign's calculation: Democrats need only look back four years ago when polls months out from the election showed Clinton ahead in Texas, Georgia and even ultra-red Utah. She ultimately lost each of those plus Midwest states that the campaign pumped resources into late.

Robby Mook, Clinton's campaign manager, addressed criticism that his campaign "didn't do enough" in Michigan and Wisconsin during an appearance this month on a podcast hosted by David Plouffe, former Obama campaign manager.

"I actually think we need to be criticized more for doing too much in Ohio and Iowa sometimes," Mook said, referring to states where Clinton spent aggressively but where she ended up not being competitive. "We just saw that those were getting harder and so we wanted to press and try to keep the fight there instead of go to different states."

More:Polls show Trump is losing to Joe Biden. They said the same thing 4 years ago against Hillary Clinton

In a warning to Democrats this year, he said the 2016 race showed just how much the dynamics in states can change rapidly. 

"The takeaway from 2016 is that the state of the race is more volatile than I think we've been used to in the last two cycles," he said. "And so the question was never, where are we today? The question I should have been asking myself more is, 'If a meteor strikes how's it going to look?' And that happened. I don't want to be an alarmist but this same thing could happen now."

Texas the seventh state Biden is running ads

Texas became the seventh state the Biden campaign is running ads. The others are six battlegrounds, each of which Trump carried in 2016: Arizona, Florida, Michigan North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. These six are widely considered the states that will swing the race. Trump has ads in the same states. Polling shows Biden ahead in each.

Signaling possible future advertising elsewhere, the Biden campaign last week announced a senior campaign team for Iowa. 

A Biden campaign official told USA TODAY the campaign "isn't ruling anything out" on expanding television ads there as well as Ohio or Georgia. 

More:Some young Black voters not enthusiastic about a Biden presidency

Democrats see Iowa and Ohio – which Obama carried twice but Clinton lost – as additional Midwest states that could flip as Biden demonstrates greater appeal in the area than Clinton. Rapidly growing Texas, with large Latino, Black and urban populations, and exploding suburbs, has increasingly inched to the left. Georgia's large Black population and booming suburbs around Atlanta has put it in play for Democrats.

"Once it goes blue, it just isn't coming back," Hinojosa said of Texas, pointing to the demographics of the state.

Biden campaign National Press Secretary T.J. Ducklo called it a "story of two campaigns on opposite trajectories."

"One is expanding the map, putting more states in play and increasing its possible paths to 270 electoral votes, while the other uses a hateful and divisive message to stoke its base and alienate the rest of the country," he said in a statement.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report recently moved Georgia to its list of "toss-up" states," although the Real Clear Politics average of polls has Trump still ahead in Georgia by 4.3 percentage points

"This election is looking more like a Democratic tsunami than simply a Blue wave," political analyst Amy Walter wrote. She pointed to Trump's low approval rating – 38% in a Gallup poll last month – as well as an 8-point deficit in Pennsylvania, 9 points in Michigan and 9 points in Wisconsin. "He’s even running behind Biden in his firewall states of Florida and North Carolina."

Trump trails in states his campaign targeted to flip

Wins for Biden in Georgia, Iowa or Ohio, and especially Texas, would dramatically complicate the path to victory for Trump and likely force his campaign to carry states that Clinton won in 2016. The leading contenders in that column are Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada and the 2nd congressional district in Maine, which splits its electoral votes between its two districts.

Although the Trump campaign has called Minnesota a target, a recent poll there had Biden up 16 percentage points. The Biden campaign has not aired ads in Minnesota, New Hampshire or Nevada, a sign that it feels comfortable in those states.

"It's early in the campaign so I wouldn't necessarily panic," John Feehery, a Republican strategist, said of the Trump campaign's television buys in Georgia, Ohio and Iowa. "I also think you want to make sure you're putting away those states early so you can focus on other swing states." Trump won Iowa by more than 9 percentage points in 2016, Ohio by 8 points and Georgia by 5 points.

More:Exclusive USA TODAY poll: Biden widens his lead, but Trump keeps the edge on enthusiasm

Feehery, who served as press secretary for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, said the Trump campaign is "looking at the polls" and wants to solidify these states while it's relatively cheap to purchase advertising time on TV. He likened it to a "cat-and-mouse game" – an attempt to get the other campaign to buy time and waste resources. Whereas a traditional election might have six or seven "swing states," he predicted more this year.

"If Trump does not win Iowa, Ohio and Georgia, the campaign's over," Feehery said. At the same time, he said the Biden campaign would probably be better off focusing on other states, particularly avoiding Texas, which has 19 media markets, making it an expensive endeavor.

"I think Texas is kind of a fool's errand for Biden. I don't think it's quite ready to switch to the Democrats. It's going to be close. I think he's got a better shot at Georgia than Texas."

Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist who has worked for Sens. Marco Rubio, Lamar Alexander and Lindsey Graham, said the Trump campaign's decision to make early television pushes in Georgia, Iowa and Ohio was "smart" and reflects that more states are up for grabs than 2016.

"We have a lot more states that are in play today because Republicans have become significantly weaker in suburban areas at the same time they've become stronger in rural areas. And because of demographic changes that are occurring throughout the Sun Belt that have been ongoing for some years," Ayres said, referring to Georgia and Texas.

The math for Biden 

The two states Clinton lost by the slimmest margins were Michigan (0.3 percentage points) and Pennsylvania (0.7 percentage points). 

If Biden win those two and holds every other state Clinton won, it would put him at 268 electoral votes and in need of just one more state that Trump carried in 2016. Democrats see two targets as potential tipping points: Wisconsin, another historically Democratic state that Clinton lost by less than 1 percent, and Arizona, where Democrats believe they have made major inroads. 

More:Biden and Trump each warn that other side may 'steal' the election as fight over mail voting rages

But Plouffe warned: "Not if you lose Minnesota. And that's the reason why you have to have more than just Arizona as the backup. You have to have Florida. You have to have North Carolina."

Mook said he doesn't think Minnesota is talked about enough, noting that Clinton won by less than 2 percentage points. He also said he believes Nevada, which Clinton won by 2.4 percentage points, would have been closer if not for the state's substantial early vote. 

"I think it's very remote that those are problem states today," Mook said. "But that's exactly I would have said in early or mid-October that, 'Hey, Minnesota will be fine.' "

Battlegrounds overlap with Senate races

The Biden campaign has talked openly about its confidence in Arizona, where it could get a boost from the campaign activity of Democrat Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, mounting a strong challenge against Republican Sen. Martha McSally. There's a similar dynamic in North Carolina, where Democrat Cal Cunningham is taking on Republican Sen. Thom Tillis.

With investments in Georgia and Iowa, the Biden campaign could also work in tandem with Senate candidates there. Democratic Jon Ossoff is challenging Republican Sen. Sonny Perdue as a special election takes place for the state's other Senate seat held by Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler. In Iowa, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst in a close race with Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. Democrats are also hoping they can knock Republican Sen. John Cornyn out in Texas, after Democrat Beto O'Rourke came within 2 points of beating Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.

More:Joe Biden tops Donald Trump in fundraising for second straight month

Iowa has only six votes in the electoral college, but it also offers an opportunity to help Democrats pick up a Senate seat.

"Do I think Biden can win in Iowa?" said former Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman Sue Dvorsky. "Damn howdy, I do. We are, in fact, a swing state."

Dvorsky, who has been active in Iowa politics for two decades and is married to former state Sen. Bob Dvorsky, said Biden can win in Iowa on the strength of local Democratic efforts across the state. She likened it to a "giant fishing net" connecting Biden to Greenfield, Democratic statehouse candidates and J.D. Scholten, a Democrat running in Iowa's 4th congressional district.

"We actually have a true coordinated campaign this year," she said, applauding the abilities of Biden's new hires in the state. "As Theresa Greenfield does better, that's actually pulling Biden along with her."

But when comes to whether Biden should "go big" in Iowa and states like Ohio, Georgia and Texas, even Dvorsky provided a caveat.

"Do I think that they ought to come in here for our six electoral votes with a truck load of money and just spread it around? Sure," she said. "But only if the campaign is sure of where they stand in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arizona.  

"There's always pressure to go big. But that can really backfire unless you know for a fact that you've got what you need."

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.