The Sweep: Can Trump Steal Minnesota?

Plus, how Biden's team can best prep him for media interviews.

Campaign Quick Hits

Mo’ money, mo’ states: Judging campaign spending can be assessed in a few different ways. When it comes to state spending numbers, I think of it both in terms of the raw numbers and the per electoral vote spending. I’ve broken down the Biden campaign numbers to let you decide what is interesting to you. 

Florida: 
Total: $40.05 million
EV: $1.6 million

Pennsylvania: 
Total: $24.57 million
EV: $1.2 million

North Carolina: 
Total: $16.62 million
EV: $1.1 million

Arizona: 
Total: $14.78 million
EV: $1.3 million

Michigan: 
Total: $14.24 million
EV: $900,000

Wisconsin: 
Total: $13.01 million
EV: $1.3 million

Great expectations: It is as true in campaigns as it is in life, but it is extra true when it comes to presidential debates: Expectations are everything. And yet, at least superficially, it would appear that the Trump campaign has been in overdrive lowering expectations for Joe Biden. USA Today/Suffolk’s latest poll found 47 percent of registered voters predicted Trump would win the debates compared with just 41 percent who picked Biden, meaning plenty of Biden voters still believe Trump will beat their candidate on September 29. On the one hand, that means if Biden can turn in a coherent performance, he beats expectations. (Note: The Trump campaign is already pitching stories on debate prep and included this hilarious “let’s-try-to-raise-expectations-at-the-last-minute” line from Jason Miller, “Biden has been debating for a half-century. He is very good.”) On the other hand, stumbles that would have gone largely unnoticed from other candidates will be amplified by the Trump campaign to fit the narrative that Biden doesn’t have the stamina to be president. The real question is how “real” the stumbles are and how the media will respond. Lots more to come on this topic as we get closer.

Absentee but not forgotten: As of the beginning of this month, there has been a 16-fold increase in absentee ballot requests over 2016. And more than half of those requests have come from registered Democrats. Only 16 percent have come from Republicans. This, of course, doesn’t mean that Biden has more enthusiasm or that the race is headed toward a blowout, but it does confirm that we will almost certainly have a big partisan divide on mail-in ballots. Speaking of which …

Vote early, vote often: Fifty-two percent of adults in an NBC/SurveyMonkey poll say they will vote early — with 19 percent saying they will vote early in person and 33 percent more saying they will vote by mail. One-third of adults, 33 percent, say they will vote in person on Election Day, and 11 percent say they might not vote at all. But, of course, that’s not the whole story. “Fifty-four percent of adults who identify as Republican or lean that way say they will vote in person on Election Day, while just 22 percent of Democrats and those who lean Democratic say the same.” Speaking of which...

Paging Count von Count: As of now, there are “12 states that do not allow mail-in ballots to be processed before Election Day, including the battlegrounds of Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.” But between lawsuits and pending state legislation, I expect that to change. The Pennsylvania legislature, for example, just advanced a bill that would—among other things—allow ballots to be counted three days early (instead of the three weeks requested by county officials), but the governor is expected to veto it. 

Mind the gender gap (cont’d): Renowned Iowa pollster Ann Selzer released her latest look at the state of the race. Notable cross tab: “Biden’s support is strongest among women (56-34%), including a better than 2-to-1 margin among suburban women (64-31%).” That’s “a wider gender gap than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received in 2016 and larger even than the 19-point advantage House Democratic candidates earned over Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections when they reclaimed control of the chamber.”

It’s my third party (and I’ll cry if I want to): Here’s an interesting nugget from Mark Murray at NBC: The NBC/WSJ polls from this year have “interviewed 215 voters who said they backed either Johnson or Stein in 2016, and Biden holds a 2-to-1 advantage among them.” Combined, that was about 4.5 percent of the vote last time around and could make a big difference if a big chunk of those 6 million plus third party voters decide to vote for one of the two major party candidates.

Something I don’t say often: Thank you, Glenn Greenwald. “[J]ournalism is not supposed to be grounded in whether something is ‘believable’ or ‘seems like it could be true.’ Its core purpose, the only thing that really makes it matter or have worth, is reporting what is true, or at least what evidence reveals. And that function is completely subverted when news outlets claim that they ‘confirmed’ a previous report when they did nothing more than just talked to the same people who anonymously whispered the same things to them as were whispered to the original outlet.” Greenwald was referring most recently to the The Atlantic piece that quoted Trump disparaging our military dead from four anonymous sources. But it could equally apply to reporting about Michael Cohen’s book, as Steve pointed out: “If you suddenly believe he's being honest, it's because you're seeking affirmation, not truth.”

Stuck in Minnesota With Arizona Blues Again

As Andrew and I were discussing politics this past week, Minnesota kept rolling around in my head. As the only potential pick-up state for Trump and a new battleground state that I’ve never worked in, I had some questions. First and most obviously, is it really even in play? Or is it just enough in play that Trump’s team can force the Dems to spend some money in the state like they’ve done to Republicans in Texas for a decade now? Andrew dives in …

A few Sweeps ago, we discussed how 2020 is a heavily defensive election year for Senate Republicans. The same is true of President Trump: He resoundingly won the Electoral College against Hillary Clinton, but faces few opportunities to expand his map this time round, and even trails Joe Biden in most of the swing states he won last time.

The notable exception is Minnesota. While Trump notched surprise skin-of-the-teeth wins in Wisconsin and Michigan in 2016, Minnesota stayed blue—not an enormous surprise, since the state has long been the bluest of the three. In the last 60 years, only one Republican has ever carried Minnesota: Richard Nixon, who lost there in 1968 but picked it up in 1972 during his 520-16 trouncing of George McGovern.

Given its history, neither Trump nor Clinton gave Minnesota much thought. The Trump campaign never bought TV ads there, and Trump himself only spent a single day campaigning there during the general election.

But the state still ended up shockingly close, as the white working class’s furtive slide toward Trump that carried him to victory across the Rust Belt made itself felt here too. Barack Obama had carried Minnesota by 10 points and then by eight; Hillary Clinton barely managed a margin of 1.5 points. Trump is still bothered by what he considers the missed opportunity: “I almost won last time,” he told a Minnesota crowd last month. “I went to Michigan. I had a choice. … One more speech, I would have won. It was so close.”

So far, the (somewhat sparse) state polls are still going Biden’s way. But neither campaign is taking the state for granted: Biden is airing ads there already and has said he hopes to campaign there if and when he resumes his electoral circuit.

Electorally speaking, Minnesota is sort of an odd duck. Through the early 20th century, the state was home to a seriously strong working-class movement, which found its expression in one of the nation’s most powerful ever state third parties, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party. In 1944, that party buried its hatchet with the Democrats, joining to form the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which is still the major Democratic party in the state today.

Counterintuitively, however, the strength of Minnesota’s labor movement is a large part of what makes it an odd fit for the party of today. Democrats’ growing role as the party of upwardly mobile suburbanites and its growing focus on environmental issues have begun to drive a rift between them and the loggers and miners who were once a reliable voting bloc outside the Twin Cities. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party used to be on the bleeding edge of progressivism, but what it means to be “progressive” has changed faster than they have in recent years.

You can see this dynamic at work in the state’s current crop of elected officials: The state’s senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, rode to a sixth-place finish in this year’s presidential primaries pitching herself as an everywoman and a sensible, moderate dealmaker. She and her colleague Sen. Tina Smith, who was appointed to the Senate after the 2018 resignation of Al Franken and faces an election of her own this year, have shied away from the current crop of signal progressive policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

There are two main components, then, to President Trump’s Minnesota strategy. First, he’ll continue aggressively to woo working-class whites, particularly in the Iron Range mining districts in the east of the state, with the “forgotten man” rhetoric and populist trade policy that started those wheels turning in the first place back in 2016. The second part of the strategy is much more recent: Going after white suburbanites hard with law and order rhetoric, hoping to capitalize on a reactionary wave against the protests that have rocked U.S. cities—and Minnesota ones in particular—this summer.

Earlier this summer, this seemed an unlikely strategy. The death of George Floyd had sent public support for the Black Lives Matter skyrocketing; to the extent that white suburban voters were thinking about racial issues, it was, as one pollster told us in June, that they “do not want to be associated with any positions perceived to be racially offensive.”

But since then, months of rioting and unrest across a number of cities—combined with a relentless Republican messaging effort to tie the Black Lives Matter movement to a number of more broadly unpalatable causes, such as Marxism—have seemingly swung the needle at least partially back the other way. In early June, a Civiqs poll found an all-time high 53 percent of respondents supporting BLM with only 28 percent opposing; this week, the same poll found 50 percent supporting, 38 percent opposing.

Will that rebalancing effect be more pronounced in the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where the protests began and have sometimes burned the hottest? The Trump campaign is banking on it.

It’s Biden’s Turn in the Barrel

Last week, I wrote a speech that Trump coulda/shoulda delivered at the RNC, and I said I would discuss Biden this week. But while Trump needed help with speechwriting, that’s not Biden’s problem. Biden has been giving speeches since well before I was born. And he is the Democratic nominee running against Donald Trump; he has the best speechwriters “loathing Donald Trump” can buy, with talented folks offering their services from the political world to Hollywood. For the most part, his nomination acceptance speech was politically flawless. 

So why do we all have this sense that Biden’s message isn’t quite … there yet? It’s the same reason we all know the words to “Call Me Maybe” despite such profound lyrics as “ripped jeans, skin was showin’; hot night, wind was blowin’” but my high school boyfriend’s Gin Blossoms-esque band, Better Mindwear,”never caught on. This has been studied and it turns out that the perfect song “needs to be similar enough ‘to evoke the warm glow of familiarity,’ but atypical enough to ‘feel new and exciting.’” It’s that je ne sais quoi, ineffable blend of familiarity and surprise. 

And when it comes to politics, Trump has it in spades; Biden doesn’t. And that’s the problem we are going to tackle this week. 

After the convention, we already noted that Biden’s personal likability numbers ticked up among his own supporters. These folks want to want him. But while Trump’s supporters need to know their guy can deliver a speech without accidentally insulting mothers and apple pie, Biden’s fans need to know he can talk without a script but also without stumbling over his own name.

And this brings us to “media prep.” A good press secretary who travels with her candidate will always be ready to “run questions” whenever there’s an unexpected break in the schedule. The candidate will always try to throw herself out the nearest airplane window rather than engage. And so the dance goes. 

Media prep is different from debate prep, but they have similarities. And like running on a treadmill for 30 minutes a day is different from running a marathon, the one can help you prepare for the other. Media prep before a big interview can be formal with advisers and policy experts sitting around a table peppering the candidate with questions and offering suggestions or data points. But everyday media prep is a press secretary in the back of an SUV with a list of topics drawn from the news of the day that he asks in the voice of Jake Tapper or Chris Wallace. 

Most candidates will insist that they “just want to talk about the answers together as a group” rather than have to give an answer and then have it picked apart by someone 30 years younger. Those candidates need to be broken like a stubborn mule. That’s not media prep. That’s called a conversation. Although in fairness, there is nothing more annoying than a press secretary who offers nitpicking critiques after every answer. 

Back in my day, I found the best way to run questions was to do Q&A for about 15 minutes without interruption so both of us could get into character. I’d work off a list I kept in a notepad during the day and I’d jot down little one word notes to myself about answers I wanted to revisit. At the end of the 15 minutes, I’d read my notes. Maybe we’d have time for another 15-minute round after that and I’d throw in a few of the same questions again and add in some new ones. And I’d always make sure to ask one “off topic” question like “why are you running for president” or “what’s your favorite style of BBQ” or “what’s the price of your favorite ice cream” just to make sure they weren’t so deep in their own heads that they couldn’t answer a softball like a human being. You’d be surprised. 

Despite what the movies portray, a great press secretary isn’t writing out an answer to every question and handing it to the candidate to memorize. Back to my curling analogy, you take the candidate as you find them. They got here for a reason; your job is to smooth the edges, present options for how to handle novel messaging problems, and provide meticulously accurate facts and data that are at your fingertips at all times (and if you don’t know, you say “let me check”—never give the wrong answer or he will repeat that wrong number for months). 

Biden should be in 15-minute media prep sessions at least six times a day at this point and against his will if necessary. Here’s the questions I’d run with him today and the notes I’d offer at the end:

  1. Your vice president recently said that “she would not necessarily trust a vaccine approved by the Trump administration before Election Day, unless a ‘credible’ source agreed it was safe.” Do you have any concerns that this type of rhetoric could politicize any vaccine and discourage Americans, including people of color, from getting a potentially life-saving vaccine when it’s available?

  2. We are in a very polarized time in our country. If President Trump wins in November, what will you say to your supporters who do not want to accept his victory? 

  3. You lead the president on every issue with voters except the economy. Why do you think Americans trust President Trump more than you on the economy and are there any of his economic policies that you are prepared to adopt to persuade voters on this issue?

  4. Yes or no question, Mr. Vice President. Do you believe America is a racist country?

  5. Have you spoken with Speaker Pelosi and do you believe it was appropriate for her to violate her city’s COVID rules to get her hair done?

  6. Earlier in this administration, there was a push from some Democratic lawmakers to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Do you support that change? Are there any agencies you would abolish as president?

  7. Do you have a fantasy football team this year and who did you draft as your QB?

Notes:

  • Ok, sir. Biggest thing. You’re giving them WAY too much to pull apart in each answer. Keep the answers tighter. You control the headline. If you give them seven different headlines in a single answer, they control the headline because they get to pick. 

  • I liked when you turned the question around on the reporters with “how would you feel.” It draws on your strength—empathy—and pulls the reporters in. Perfect answer, sir.

  • Didn’t love the attempt at humor. Hard in one breath to reach for emotion and empathy and in the next say something snarky about mental health. I think dad humor would be fine but not snark. It’s not on brand for you.

  • Don’t assume voters are watching the whole press conference. They’ll see a single clip on cable TV or a headline. So don’t treat it as one big event. Repeat yourself if the question is similar. Six questions means six separate interviews.

  • “It’s hard to respond to something so idiotic” was great. If you want to get off the ‘respond to Trump’ questions, use that. But also leave it at that and then move onto the next question. Don’t be afraid to keep it short!

  • Think about your audience for each question. Is it the reporter or the person flipping through CNN who isn’t sure whether they are going to vote this year? It’s important for you to know a current quarterback’s name and not to turn it into a serious answer. You’re winning the “get a beer with” vote so don’t give it away on questions like this. Ex. you can say you’re trying to get the “Tompa Bay” vote. 

  • Now let’s go again. This time, remember: Control the headline.

Photograph by Brendan Smialowsky/AFP/Getty Images.