Through a series of articles we call The State, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Advocacy and Political Affairs team is providing analysis related to "the state of" various aspects of the 2020 campaign season, including the race for the White House and key elections around the country.
Most political analysts agree that the race for the White House between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will likely come down to six battleground states that collectively represent 101 Electoral College votes: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Four of those states, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, have Democratic governors, which will add an interesting dynamic to how the race plays out.
Currently, Joe Biden holds the lead among the average of polls in three of those four states.
When then-candidate Trump won these states in 2016, only Pennsylvania had a Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, who is still in office. Democrat Roy Cooper won the North Carolina gubernatorial election alongside President Trump, defeating the incumbent Republican governor. Both Michigan and Wisconsin had Republican governors at the time. Two years later in the 2018 midterms, all four states tilted away from the Republican Party. In Michigan and Wisconsin, Democrats were elected to the governor’s office and flipped other statewide offices. In North Carolina, Democrats picked up nine seats in the House of Representatives. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf was reelected with 57% of the vote and the Democrats flipped three congressional seats.
This Democrat-dominated landscape presented a considerable reelection challenge for President Trump before the coronavirus pandemic dramatically changed the nature of the race for the White House. It is difficult to see how the pandemic and its ripple effects – an increasing death count, surging unemployment and a shuttered economy – is not the central issue of the November election. Public perceptions of the president’s management of the situation will be pivotal in this election.
As of an April 30 poll, the approval rating for the president’s handling of the crisis is far below those of each governor in all four states.
These numbers do not necessarily translate into vote share between Trump and Biden come Election Day, but such a wide gulf shows that these perceptions go well-beyond partisan leanings. Elections are mostly about perceptions of a candidate and if voters continue to perceive the president as not handling this crisis appropriately, then all four of these states -- and the White House -- could slip from his grasp. The governors in these states will have no incentive to help him improve his standing in the state and every incentive to help Joe Biden.
On a recent visit to Pennsylvania, President Trump was greeted by a crowd of supporters, but the visit and the group of supporters were criticized by the Democratic governor for violating the state’s social distancing orders.
It’s likely no coincidence that the first state the president traveled to since the crisis began was Arizona, where Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has a 60% approval of his handling of the situation versus the president’s 45%. Arizona is also a state where all recent public polling shows Biden leading. Governor Ducey can help President Trump shore up his numbers in the state and act as a surrogate for him leading up to November.
None of this is set in stone. Public polls have been pretty sparse, especially compared to what we’ll see by the end of the summer, when people typically start tuning in to the election. The coronavirus pandemic has completely upended the political landscape. A slowdown in new cases, the gradual reopening of the states and improvements in the economy could favor the president. Joe Biden, for his part, will have to make voters believe he would better handle the crisis, and everything else that comes with the presidency, rather than just be the alternative to the incumbent.
The time between May and November is a lifetime in an election, but the endgame for the candidates is starting to unfold.
Mike Sistak is director of grassroots program development at the American Farm Bureau Federation.