The Memo: Midwest-Sun Belt divide to play key role in Trump-Biden fight

The 2024 election will likely come down to just six states — and there is a big fault line right down the middle of them.

Numerous polls show that President Biden is more competitive in the battleground states in the Midwest and Rust Belt — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — than he is in the Sun Belt and Southern states of Arizona, Nevada and Georgia.

It’s not a bright picture for Biden anywhere, since he won the six battlegrounds in 2020 and former President Trump now has an advantage in all of them. In addition, the one state that Democrats held out hopes of flipping from the Trump column this November, North Carolina, looks like a heavy lift.

Still, the regional divide is notable.

In the polling averages maintained by The Hill and Decision Desk HQ (DDHQ), Trump’s lead does not exceed 2 points in Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. In fact, the former president’s lead is largely meaningless in Wisconsin, at just one-tenth of a percentage point.

By contrast, Trump leads by more than 3 points in Arizona, more than 4 points in Georgia and more than 5 points in Nevada. The Nevada numbers are striking, given that Biden won the state by more than 2 points in 2020 and no Republican has carried it since former President George W. Bush in 2004.

Given all that, there seems little doubt that Biden’s narrow path to reelection runs through the Midwest.

Those three states “are the grounds for hope” for Biden, according to Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette Law School poll, located in Milwaukee.

“It would be very easy to imagine the tilt of the race shifting” in the five-plus months before Election Day, Franklin cautioned. “But I don’t think it is much open to question that, if you went just with the polling, the Midwest states are basically toss-ups and the Sun Belt states are a little bit leaning toward Trump.”

The question is why — and the answer, of course, is complicated.

One factor is probably the salience of immigration, especially in the border state of Arizona. Georgia also has a significant population of immigrant workers in its agricultural sector, while the southernmost point of Nevada is only about 220 miles from the border with Mexico.

Immigration has been a persistent electoral vulnerability for Biden as encounters between border agents and unauthorized migrants have risen to record highs during his term.

Those encounters have fallen in the last couple of months, but that hasn’t helped Biden’s poll numbers. Democratic efforts to paint Republicans as obstructionists after a bipartisan border proposal fell apart — in large part because of Trump’s opposition — earlier this year haven’t moved the dial either.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week showed more than 1 in 8 Americans believing immigration is the top issue facing the nation. Forty-two percent preferred Trump on the topic against 25 percent picking Biden.

Trump, whose rhetoric on immigration has been incendiary since he began his political career in 2015, has suggested he will carry out mass deportations if he is elected again.

Mike Noble, a pollster based in Arizona, said he felt Biden’s challenges in the Grand Canyon State were primarily connected to the salience of immigration, as well as inflation, in voters’ minds.

“The border is a very unique thing in Arizona, and if you’re not in a border state you don’t get it,” Noble said.

Nevada a problem for Biden

Noble has also done significant polling in Nevada, and he pointed to a different, less noticed factor that may be a tailwind for Trump there.

The Silver State has the lowest percentage of college-educated adults of any of the battleground states.

According to the 2020 census, 26.5 percent of Nevadans aged 25 or older have bachelor’s degrees or higher. The equivalent figure is higher than 30 percent in all of the other battleground states, reaching 33.8 percent in Pennsylvania.

Education has become an important dividing line in American politics in recent years, with Democrats becoming increasingly dominant among college-educated voters and Republicans strengthening their standing with voters who did not attend college.

The Sun Belt vs. Midwest battleground split has another component, too: tradition.

When Biden won Arizona and Georgia in 2020, he was the first Democrat to carry those states since 1996 and 1992, respectively. By contrast, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had voted for Democrats for president for so long — Wisconsin since 1988, the other two states since 1992 — that they had become collectively known as the “Blue Wall.”

Trump demolished the wall in 2016 by carrying all three against Hillary Clinton. Biden then rebuilt it in 2020. But it still looks rather shaky.

Franklin, the Marquette Law School pollster, noted that the blue-leaning tradition in the three Midwest states means Democrats have deep organizational roots there. But he now thinks of the three as “blue tissue paper” states, because of how fragile the Democratic advantage has become.

Caveats, caveats

At this stage, every prediction comes with caveats.

There are months to go, and tens of millions of ad dollars to be spent. Unexpected events could shift the race markedly. And there are state-specific factors that run counter to the view of a simple regional split.

In Michigan, for example, Democratic disaffection with Biden’s policy on Israel and Gaza could cause him real trouble. The state is home to the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation, and an “uncommitted” line in the Democratic primary there — essentially a Gaza protest vote — drew 13 percent support in February.

Conversely, Arizona is home to a high-profile Senate race this year, which is expected to pit Trump loyalist Kari Lake (R) against progressive-leaning Rep. Ruben Gallego (D).

Lake, a former TV anchor, is charismatic but deeply controversial, in part because of her unfounded allegations of election fraud both in the 2020 presidential race and in her own 2022 gubernatorial loss.

A poll earlier this month from Noble’s firm found Lake’s favorability ratings with key demographic groups in the state was markedly lower than Trump’s — something the pollster warned “could be a pain point for Trump in Arizona.”

Still, the bottom line is everything could depend on whether the Blue Wall stands or gets demolished again.

If Biden wins the three more northerly battlegrounds, he could afford to lose Arizona, Georgia and Nevada.

But the margin would be heart-stoppingly tight.

So long as everything else stayed the same as 2020, the president would prevail by the closest possible margin: 270 Electoral College votes to 268 for Trump.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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