The release on bail of Derek Chauvin, the officer charged in George Floyd’s death, prompted yet another surge of unrest in Minnesota. But even as demonstrations filled the streets for a second night, Donald Trump’s campaign was pulling ad money out of the state. The president’s law-and-order message, which campaign officials had expected to resonate in the protest-torn state, wasn’t working.
Trump taking down the fabled “blue wall” of Rust Belt states—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan—was the most shocking component of his historic upset in 2016. Just as unexpected, to Democrats, pollsters and political pundits, was this: he nearly won Minnesota, falling just 1.5 points behind Hillary Clinton in what was supposed to be the bluest of blue states. Democrats have won in Minnesota every presidential cycle since 1976, the longest streak in the nation.
The Trump campaign went all in this time around, convinced it could flip the state and give him some electoral breathing room should, say, Wisconsin (which, like Minnesota, has ten electoral votes) flip back to the Democrats. It has 79 paid staffers in the state, Trump staged rallies there three times in the last three months, and campaign surrogates have been in the state repeatedly.
With Trump currently trailing in all the Blue Wall states he won in 2016, the need to carry Minnesota looks more urgent than ever. The problem for Trump: the state appears to be slipping away. According to Real Clear Politics, an aggregation of recent polling done through the month of September shows the president trailing in the state by nine points. And the demographic break downs of those polls—the so-called “internals”— are even more dispiriting for the Trump Team. They show the president underperforming relative to 2016 in his key constituency: white males without college degrees.
The fact that Trump hasn’t drawn closer in Minnesota suggests that a key strategic shift in the Trump campaign in the late summer—its emphasis on ‘law and order” in the wake of urban unrest across the country—has not worked. Late this spring, Minnesota became ground zero for two issues that have since roiled the country: the death of George Floyd at the hands of three police officers fueled outrage nationwide, prompting large demonstrations demanding racial justice and significant change in law enforcement. In many cases, however, the protests turned violent, something the Trump campaign seized on.
“Law and order” became a campaign catchword—a nightly staple on Fox News—and the campaign cut TV ads emphasizing the looting and violence, trying to tie it to Biden and the Democrats. Trump strategists were convinced the chaos in Minneapolis and elsewhere would redound to the president’s benefit, particularly in largely white, middle-class suburbs.
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Trump held large rallies in Minnesota in August and September pounding the theme, and for a time the polls did tighten. That prompted Biden to emerge from his basement in Delaware to stage a campaign event in Duluth on September 18—the same day Trump held a large rally in Bemidji, Mn. on September 18.
But the law-and-order theme never gained any real traction, and Biden’s lead widened again in Minnesota. Why hasn’t it worked? The polling on the issues of racial inequality and urban unrest suggests that voters don’t think Trump has the temperament or the ability to reduce the tensions that prompted the demonstrations. According to a September YouGov survey , 56 percent of adults said that the violence happening at protests would get worse if Trump were reelected. Conversely, 43 percent thought protest violence would lessen if Biden won, and just 23 percent thought it would worsen. An ABC News/Ipsos poll found that 55 percent of Americans thought Trump’s statements on race and unrest made things worse.
Several polls showed that the pubic favors Biden on the issue of race relations and public safety. The Biden campaign believes its emphasis on unifying the country and, as the vice president has repeatedly said, “lowering the temperature,” are messages that have resonated.
Down by nine with less than four weeks to election day, Trump appears to be lowering his investment in the Minnesota strategy. According to the Alexandria, Va.-based firm Advertising Analytics, the campaign has cut $5 million from its pre-booked television advertising in the state. The campaign spent $3 million on its air campaign from the first of September through the end of last week. The Biden campaign spent $7.6 million over the same time period. With Trump also trailing, but by a lesser margin, in must-win states like Florida, the campaign has stepped up its air campaign there.
The Trump campaign pushes back hard against the notion that it’s giving up on Minnesota. “If overspending on TV ads determined the outcome of elections, Hillary Clinton would be president,” said Samantha Zager, deputy press secretary for the campaign. The campaign’s focus in the closing weeks is on marshalling what it says is a robust ground game—something that was non-existent for Trump in 2016. Preya Samsudar, Team Trump’s Minnesota spokeswoman, says the campaign has made four million voter contacts since the start of the year. Annette Meeks, a veteran GOP operative in the state, says that effort has helped the campaign identify some 250,000 white males without college degrees who didn’t vote in 2016. “Every election is about turn out,” Meeks says. ” We have a vigorous on-the-ground campaign. If the campaign turns out their votes, they have a very good chance of winning.”
Trump’s weakness in Minnesota is telling, though. The law and order messaging fell flat, and the Covid-19 virus is again the pre-eminent issue in the wake of Trump’s infection. The campaign needs to change the subject—”The Great American Comeback” is its likely closing theme—but the next significant chance to do that is the second debate, if there is one. Increasingly, it looks like Trump’s bet on turning Minnesota red won’t pay off—and that this time, as Minnesota goes, so goes the election.
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