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A shifting battlefield map is imperiling Donald Trump’s re-election, putting the president on the defensive in states his team didn’t expect to be competitive in November.

Recent surveys show Democrat Joe Biden has pulled further ahead in the industrial Midwestern states that Trump won in 2016, as the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting job losses prompted a precipitous slide in his support.

Trump summoned top political advisers to the White House Thursday for a meeting on ways to reverse poll numbers showing re-election may be slipping from his grasp. Then Friday, Trump got an unexpected piece of good news: A drop in the May unemployment rate that suggested the economy – and with it, Trump’s re-election campaign – is more resilient than even he believed.

Trump congratulated himself on the jobs numbers on Twitter, immediately called a news conference, and took a swipe at his challenger.

But the president now also faces a third crisis, nationwide protests over police mistreatment of African-Americans that have turned to rioting and looting in some places, leading Trump to suggest deploying the military to crack down on the demonstrations.

Washington D.C., where Trump has wider leeway to order deployments, has about 7,600 civilian law enforcement, National Guard and active-duty Army personnel stationed just outside the city, Bloomberg News reported.

Biden’s average lead in national polls has inched up 2 points over the last week, and he’s now ahead of Trump by almost 8 points, his largest lead since December.

But it’s the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that chooses presidents. Biden’s recent rise in battleground states has begun to repair the so-called “blue wall” of loyally Democratic states that Trump toppled in 2016. The former vice president now has consistent leads of 4 points in Pennsylvania, 4.2 points in Michigan and 3.4 points in Wisconsin.

The news is not all good for Biden. Each of those leads is far from insurmountable, especially for a candidate fighting Trump, who survived brushes with his political mortality repeatedly in 2016, only to stun Democrats and win the White House.

And Biden’s hill to climb remains steep, with little room for error. If the rest of the map stays the same as 2016, Biden would need all three states to reach the 270 electoral votes necessary to claim the White House.

But the 2020 map so far looks significantly different in ways that could help Biden. He holds a substantial lead in Arizona, for example, a state that Trump won by more than 5 points in 2016. The former vice president believes he could be competitive or win in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and even Texas – all states that Trump comfortably won on his way to the White House

And the Trump campaign is fighting for them. Since early May, it has unloaded $9.1 million on ads defending battleground states he won in 2016. His allied super PAC America First Action has spent $3.9 million in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

More tellingly, the Trump campaign has not gone on the offensive in Democratic-leaning states like Minnesota, Colorado and Virginia as it had once planned.

Trump is also starting to spend money in Iowa, a state that the president carried in 2016 after Barack Obama took it twice.

While Biden has spent only on digital ads since the coronavirus lockdown, outside groups backing him – Priorities USA Action, Unite the Country and others – have spent $7.4 million on ads in battleground states. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have seen the biggest buys.

As things stand now, Biden could not only regain Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, he could take several states once steadfastly Republican: Arizona, Ohio, North Carolina and Texas.

Some establishment Republicans are beginning to openly disagree with Trump, a sign of trouble. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said Thursday she’s not sure she’ll vote for him. The Lincoln Project – a group of anti-Trump Republicans – is trolling him with ads in his adopted hometown of Palm Beach, Florida. Meanwhile, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa is holding up some executive branch nominations because he is angry that Trump fired several inspectors general.

Trump threatened to campaign against Murkowski in two year’s time in retaliation for her remarks, saying Thursday he would back any opponent, good or bad. “If you have a pulse, I’m with you,” Trump tweeted.

“If the election were held today, Donald Trump would lose,” said Republican strategist Terry Sullivan. “But the election isn’t today, it’s in five months. If we’ve learned anything over the last three-and-a-half years, it’s that five months out is a lifetime.”

Still, Sullivan says that the president hasn’t been boosting his prospects. “He has not put the shovel down, he’s digging just as hard,” Sullivan said.

Approval Slipping

Trump’s approval rating has slipped 2.5 points in the week and a half since George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, died in the custody of a Minneapolis Police officer who knelt into his neck for nine minutes.

The president’s average approval rating in the RealClearPolitics average fell to 42.8% Thursday, its lowest point since November, when damning revelations of his involvement in the Ukraine scandal emerged. His impeachment by the House and eventual acquittal in the Senate gave his approval a temporary bump.

His threat to send troops into American cities to crush rioting and looting has revived the debate over Trump’s attitude toward race. He is particularly defensive about it, the strategist said, and his comments on the subject have consistently caused trouble throughout his presidency.

By contrast, one of Biden’s greatest strengths as a candidate is a deep well of support among African-American voters. Obama’s vice president turned the tide of his campaign with the help of black voters in South Carolina. Swing states like North Carolina, Michigan and Florida have large numbers of African-American voters who could be decisive for Biden – if they turn out in large numbers.

Battleground Worries

Officially, the Trump campaign says it’s not worried.

“Everyone knows public polling is notoriously wrong about President Trump. Our internal data consistently shows the president running strong against a defined Joe Biden in all of our key states,” Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman said.

Privately, Trump is anxious about his numbers in battleground states, according to people familiar with the campaign who asked not to be named.

The Thursday campaign meeting was called in part to coordinate a response. Trump emerged confident, said one person familiar with the meeting. He was particularly interested in how the campaign could undermine Biden with black voters by highlighting Biden’s comment last week that those who haven’t yet decided to support the Democrat “ain’t black.”

But the advisers worry that Trump’s fierce instincts that worked so well in 2016 – picking Twitter fights and changing the subject – don’t work in times of national crisis.

The New Map

The Biden campaign says Trump’s handling of the crises has given Biden new opportunities to compete in places thought out of reach even a year ago.

But Biden campaign strategist Greg Schultz told donors at a virtual fundraiser Monday that he’s not losing his focus on the three states most crucial to Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016.

“When you look at the map, you obviously have Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Those three states alone, 77,000 votes, it’s a different story. Joe Biden’s in the White House,” he said.

Still, Biden sees opportunities to expand the map, help Democrats down ballot, and run up the score. Ohio and Florida were crucial swing states in 2000 and 2004 and could become competitive again, Schultz said. Obama won North Carolina in 2008, and demographic changes in Arizona could deliver that state to the Democrats for the first time since 1996. A recent poll showed Biden and Trump neck-and-neck in Texas.

“We have a chance to win Texas,” Schultz said. “Now, we’re not going to lose our focus. Again, we know our path to 270. And the reality is that if we’re winning Texas, this is probably a an election with 300-plus electoral votes.”

Of those states, the Trump campaign faces the biggest headwinds in Arizona, which may now be out of reach, said two people familiar with the president’s campaign’s strategy. That’s worrisome because Arizona has a high number of independent and suburban voters. And if Trump loses them in Arizona, he could lose them elsewhere.

Trump is being dragged down in Arizona by a Senate race in which Republican incumbent Martha McSally trails Democrat Mark Kelly, astronaut and husband of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who has bankrolled at least $30 million for his race.

Republican strategists say Trump is on solid footing in Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia. They say Republican Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio enjoys strong approval numbers that can aid the president. DeWine was one of the most aggressive governors in shutting down his state in March for the coronavirus, taking a different tack than Trump.

But the president faces a challenge in Pennsylvania, a state he narrowly won in 2016. He’ll need to boost turnout in the Republican areas outside of large cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. That’s a tall order, given that Biden is a native of Scranton.

Turnout will be paramount in November, especially if there is a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the Republican strategist said. And the moves toward voting by mail to avoid more infections tend to benefit Democrats.

Discussions with Trump at the White House Thursday included Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, Jared Kushner, who is essentially campaign chairman and others, including Paris Dennard, an African-American Republican strategist.

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