For Joe Biden, it has always been about Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
From the start of his U.S. presidential campaign until the final day of the race Tuesday, the self-described “scrappy kid from Scranton” believed that rebuilding the Democratic “blue wall” in those states would not only be his strongest path to the White House but also critical for a party that long drew strength from working class and middle class voters in the region.
Now, with Biden edging ahead of President Donald Trump in a nail-biter of an election, the former vice president’s disciplined approach to winning back those northern industrial states — rather than getting distracted by Democratic dreams of a blue Texas — appears to be paying off. Wisconsin and Michigan flipped back to Democrats on Wednesday, moving Biden closer to winning the needed 270 Electoral College votes.
His path to victory could well go through Pennsylvania, which Democrats lost in 2016 for the first time in a quarter-century and Biden, a native son, seemed most determined to claim. But his victories in Wisconsin and Michigan also give him the latitude to take the White House with wins in Arizona and Nevada, where he was ahead in the vote counts Wednesday night.
Georgia, another state where Biden and Trump are running closely, has been a tantalizing target for Democrats in recent years, fueled by fast-changing suburbs. Biden made a real play for the state, with advertising and visits by former President Barack Obama and others, but he did not spend a lot of time there at the cost of the blue-wall states.
“It was critical to his success to win those three back, not only for his presidency, but also for the party,” said former Mayor Michael Nutter, of Philadelphia. “We can continue to try to make gains in Florida, we can continue to push Texas and Arizona and Georgia down the line. But those three are key Democratic strongholds.”
Trump campaigned aggressively in Michigan, Wisconsin and especially Pennsylvania, too. But Biden’s focus was notable: Many presidential nominees take their eyes off their most critical states, but Biden never lost sight of trying to win back voters in those three states who abandoned the party four years ago.
“If I’m going to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it’s going to happen here,” Biden, the former vice president, told voters in Pittsburgh during the first address of his primary campaign in April 2019.
After midnight Wednesday, he declared to supporters, “It’s going to take time to count the votes, but we’re going to win Pennsylvania.”
Such discipline is relatively rare in presidential politics — candidates, often times Democrats, usually get swept up with a big map conquest, like Hillary Clinton’s intense focus on Florida in 2016 and even her dalliances with Arizona and Utah.
But this race was no ordinary contest: Like voters, activists and officials in his party, Biden was haunted by the narrow loss in 2016 of 80,000 votes in the three traditionally Democratic states that cost the party the White House that year.
In the last days of the election, Biden’s campaign and allies privately maintained that he could win battleground states across the country, including places like North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia. But, they argued, the trifecta represented their easiest — although perhaps not fastest — path to the presidency. Final returns in all three states are expected to take days, and Trump tried early Wednesday to set the narrative that Democrats were trying to “steal the election” — a groundless assertion.
But the Biden camp wasn’t about to take the bait.
“We believe that we are well-positioned in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin,” Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, said Monday in a briefing about election night. “We know those states in particular are coming in later, but we think we’re going to win those states. That is our clearest path to victory.”
Although Biden visited Arizona and Georgia, his campaign had declined to spend a lot of precious time and money in those states — despite repeated pleas from local Democrats. And when two Democratic billionaires, Dustin Moskovitz and Mike Bloomberg, poured money into Texas in the eleventh hour, Biden dispatched only Sen. Kamala Harris of California, his running mate, to the state.
Even that was more attention than Democrats were accustomed to getting from the national party in the traditionally conservative Western states. In Arizona, a state that Biden visited just once as the party’s nominee, officials said they were satisfied with the campaign’s approach to the state.
“They spent a lot of time here; they put in a lot of energy and attention, more than previous campaigns,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, who represents the fast-growing Phoenix area. “And if we win, it doesn’t matter.”
In total, Biden spent $57.8 million on advertising in Texas and Arizona. He spent nearly three times as much — $169.2 million — in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The decision to focus on the industrial trio was driven by the practicalities of political math. Clinton lost those states by tight margins, making them fertile ground for Democrats to begin a comeback. Just winning those three states, along with holding all of the traditionally Democratic strongholds won by Clinton, would capture the presidency for Biden.
But it was also a calculation born of cultural affinity. Despite his decades in Washington, Biden sees himself as a working-class son, just another “middle class Joe” taking the train to work like any other commuter.
“Joe, people like him; they don’t dislike him,” Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan said in an interview this fall. “Hillary Clinton’s my friend, but she never walked into a union hall.”
Biden has particularly close ties to Pennsylvania, often jokingly referred to as the “third senator” from the state during his time in Congress, said Nutter.
“He knows the state. He’s comfortable in the state,” he said. “For him, campaigning in Pennsylvania was almost like going home.”
Shortly after Clinton’s loss in 2016, Biden recalled feeling disturbed when seeing Trump strike a chord with voters at a rally near his childhood Scranton home, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
“Son of a gun — we may lose this election,” Biden recounted feeling, in an interview in December 2016 with the Los Angeles Times.
Biden crafted his own approach, determined not to repeat what he saw as Clinton’s mistakes. Not only did Biden start and end his campaign in Pennsylvania, he also visited the state more than any other during the campaign. Just a little more than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, and sharing a common media market, Pennsylvania was a second political home for Biden long before he started his third presidential bid.
“From the time I started as a U.S. senator, Philadelphia has brought me to the dance!” Biden, a former senator from Delaware, told cheering supporters in the north part of the city, during his last event before polls closed Tuesday evening.
Biden and some of his allies see the working and middle-class moderate voters of the Midwest as his natural base, and they tried to build a coalition that was made up of more white voters than the base that elected Obama and that Clinton tried to replicate in 2016.
“Biden is from a manufacturing town, and he’s of the right age demographic and financial background,” said Aaron Stearns, the Democratic chairman in Warren County in northwestern Pennsylvania. “People can relate to him in a way that they could not relate to Hillary Clinton.”
Some Democrats say it was Biden’s willingness to focus on the northern states, devoting his limited in-person campaign stops to show up even as coronavirus cases surged across the region, that gave him a chance of winning the states back.
“A lot of the problem was that Hillary Clinton was not here enough in some of the suburban areas that we lost to Trump,” said Jay Costa, the Democratic leader in the Pennsylvania state Senate. “The former vice president did a very good job of not falling into that trap another time.”
In the final days of his campaign, Biden did add a stop in Ohio, a state that many Democrats believe has shifted — perhaps permanently — away from their party. They were proved right Tuesday night, when Trump won the state.
Some Democrats attributed the stop in Cleveland to scheduling around events in Pennsylvania. Getting across the country to Arizona would simply take too many precious hours in the final days, given how many stops Biden’s campaign had planned in the Keystone State.
But others ascribed the stop to Biden’s dogged belief that the Democratic path to the White House still runs through the Midwest.
The Biden campaign, unlike the campaigns of Obama and Clinton, did not impose a central strategy on state Democratic parties, said officials in the three states. Instead, the campaign integrated with voter outreach programs that each state had been building since the parties’ losses in 2016.
“The big gamble for state parties was, would the presidential campaign push all the dishes off the table and start over or integrate with what we had been building?” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “They didn’t impose a one-size-fits-all model.”
Wikler said he had been in regular contact with Biden campaign officials beginning last summer to brief them on the program that the state party was building.
After Clinton failed to visit Wisconsin during her 2016 campaign, Biden made three visits to the state, which was set to host the Democratic National Convention before it became an all-virtual event because of the coronavirus pandemic, which is worse in Wisconsin than it is in any other battleground state.
Wikler said the three visits, along with myriad other virtual events that Biden and his surrogates hosted for local supporters, were sufficient enough to maintain a presence for Wisconsin voters.
“Biden has made clear all along that Wisconsin is a top priority,” he said.
It may still be some time before the U.S. knows whether it was enough.
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