WASHINGTON - As Joe Biden struggles to build on his narrow lead in the industrial Midwest states that favored Donald Trump four years ago, his campaign is increasingly focusing much farther west - on a former Republican stronghold that could prove crucial for Democrats in the fall.
Arizona is fast becoming a central target of the Biden campaign as Trump falters in the state. Its electorate is being reshaped, with suburban Republicans unnerved by his handling of the pandemic, Latinos poised to vote Democratic in record numbers and an influx of progressive newcomers from California.
"We believe there will be battleground states that have never been battleground states before - Arizona on the top of the list," said Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon, in a call with reporters Friday. "We are not only ahead (in Arizona), but we have a strong opportunity there to build our pathway to victory. The ground is there."
The emphasis on Arizona comes as Biden struggles to build a lead in some of the traditional battleground states. While polls show the former vice president ahead comfortably nationwide, his advantage is razor thin in some pivotal Midwestern states that once formed a "Blue Wall" for Democrats - until 2016. The closeness of the race in those states leaves the party fearing the prospect of again winning the popular vote nationwide, but losing the electoral college vote - as it did in 2000 and 2016 - because of state losses.
It also underscores the difficulty that Biden has had luring away from Trump the voters many Democrats were hopeful he could win back: white men without college degrees.
One new poll even showed Biden losing among voters in the 15 swing states decided by 8 percentage points or less in 2016, a third of which are in the Midwest. The poll, conducted for CNN, surveyed a total of 583 voters in those states, and found Trump leading, 52% to 45%.
Such indicators are troubling for Democrats at a time when Biden has many advantages. Trump's approval ratings are sagging and voters in key demographic groups are abandoning him amid their worries about his handling of the pandemic. Support for Trump among Americans 65 and older, who were central to his victory in 2016, has fallen in poll after poll. And the Republican and independent women who helped push Trump over the top four years ago are also reconsidering their support, polls show.
The shifts come as the president has fallen behind in Florida, and the race in North Carolina is also narrowing, signaling the potential for losses in the Sun Belt even if Trump prevails again in such places as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
The Biden campaign, in the briefing with reporters, aimed to project strength at a time the organization has been the target of considerable second-guessing by pundits and party operatives. The former vice president's adjustment to virtual campaigning has been awkward, and influential Democrats are pressuring him to mount a more robust organizing effort, bulk up his digital operation, and improve outreach to minority voters.
Campaign officials presented a map of what they argue are the new battlegrounds. Along with Arizona, it included Georgia and Texas, states where the demographics also are shifting in favor of Democrats, but that pose a much bigger reach for Biden than the Grand Canyon State.
"I am bullish about Arizona," O'Malley Dillon said. "It is a state where we are not only ahead, but we have a strong opportunity to build our unique pathway to victory."
She pointed to the large number of voters there who supported Republicans in past presidential elections but then voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterms, and the prospects for boosting turnout among Latinos.
The Trump campaign dismisses all the talk of Arizona going blue as fantasy from the left. It projects that Arizonans will rally to the president's side as the economy roars back - which Trump vows will be before November, despite far less rosy projections from both independent analysts and the Federal Reserve.
"Arizonans know the economy reached unprecedented heights under President Trump's leadership before it was artificially interrupted by the coronavirus, and he will build it back up a second time," said campaign spokeswoman Sarah Matthews. "President Trump's policies have also delivered for every demographic and especially for Latinos."
Arizonans, she said, "know that Joe Biden has been nothing but a political crank, lobbing counterproductive criticisms from his basement bunker." In one of Trump's few ventures out of the White House since the pandemic ended in-person campaigning, he flew earlier this month to Arizona, where he toured a factory that manufactures personal protective gear.
Yet Republicans' challenges in Arizona are evident in the struggles of incumbent Sen. Martha McSally, who is consistently trailing in her bid for election to the seat to which she was appointed early last year by the Republican governor. The state is drifting politically in the direction of its neighbor, Colorado, which in recent years has become much more favorable to Democrats.
But the robust Latino turnout on which Democrats' strategy is built won't come easily. Biden struggled with Latino voters in the primary; in state after state, they were far more likely to support Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. And in recent days, Latino organizers and operatives have expressed concern about what they say is the campaign's insufficient investment in a strategy to convert those Sanders supporters into Biden voters.
"People think of Arizona as a Latino state, and they are right, but voters there have also elected some of the craziest, anti-immigrant white politicians you have ever seen," said Chuck Rocha, an architect of the Sanders Latino strategy. "Joe Biden has underperformed with young voters and Latinos. Some Zoom calls are not going to fix these problems. There needs to be a direct investment in this community. And he needs to ramp it up soon."
Rocha warned that Biden is not inspiring Latinos the way the Vermont senator did. But Biden will have help in Arizona, including from Nuestro PAC, which Rocha launched to mobilize Latino voters for Democrats in battleground states.
Also, a group of Republican operatives determined to beat Trump are also homing in on Arizona. The Lincoln Project, which is focused on turning Republican voters against the president, sees opportunity to erode Trump's base in the state.
"We only need 3, 4, 5% of Republicans to not vote for Trump," said Mike Madrid, a consultant with the Lincoln Project. "If that happens in Arizona, Trump is done. He needs to win overwhelmingly with the Republican electorate there, which he is not doing right now."
But Madrid warned that Biden cannot afford to make the same missteps with Arizona's Latino voters that Democrats did in 2016, when their pitch focused on immigration, including narrowly on issues like driver's licenses for the undocumented. While antipathy for Trump will drive Latino turnout, he said, "Democrats also need to have an aspirational economic middle-class message."
Rocha said that is what worked for Sanders, whose campaign emphasized to Latino voters the injustice of economic inequality and the promise of universal healthcare, debt relief and "unrigging" the political system.
"Arizona is a challenging landscape because of the enthusiasm of white voters for Donald Trump in that state," Rocha said. "Too many establishment consultants focus on talking to the small group of Latino voters who voted in the last election. You need to talk to all of them."
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