Hillary Clinton's campaign announced Thursday that it would start running ads in Arizona — a state that's voted for the Democrat in a presidential election only once since 1952. On Tuesday, Donald Trump announced that he, too, was planning to play in hostile territory, telling an audience in Everett, Wash., that he would win the state.
At a glance this looks like somewhat equivalent posturing, Clinton putting down a marker in a red state and Trump in a blue one. It isn't.
Arizona and Washington state have been reliably partisan, but to different degrees. Arizona has voted for the Republican by a 5.7-point margin on average since 1992, while Washington has backed the Democrat by an average of 11.4. Arizona's one dalliance with the Democrats came within the past six contests, backing a guy named Bill Clinton in 1996.
In other words, since 1992 Washington has been about twice as partisan as Arizona. And that's important.
Washington has been so consistently Democratic that pollsters don't really bother polling there much. The most recent survey in the state is from Seattle's Elway Poll, and it showed Clinton leading Trump by 19 points. For the sake of comparison, Elway had a poll in early September 2012 that showed President Obama up by 17 — and he ended up winning by 15.
Arizona has not only been closer, Clinton has actually held a lead there at times. Compare the average of polls conducted since July 1 with the equivalent period from four years ago and the difference is clear: Trump is in a much tougher race in the state than Mitt Romney was.
The question then is: Where will the campaigns spend resources? Clinton's announcement indicates that she's putting money down in Arizona, a state where she also has two field offices (to Trump's one). Trump's bravado about competing in Washington hasn't been backed up by much — except that he traveled to the state and held an event there. Trump's plane alone costs nearly $11,000 an hour to fly to Washington — meaning six figures were spent just to get the candidate to and from the state. Clinton's initial ad buy in Arizona is also six figures (although it's not clear how much precisely).
Often, campaigns will offer feints to force their opponents to defend their home turf. In other words, it's not clear that Clinton will push hard enough in Arizona to try to win — but spending resources there could force Trump to spend time and money of his own in the state. (His big immigration speech Wednesday was in Phoenix, for example.) Politico's Gabriel Debenedetti argues that this is precisely what Clinton hopes to do, and it's working.
It's working in part because it's conceivable that Clinton could win the state. It is not conceivable that Trump could win Washington (at least not at this point), so Clinton won't be tempted to move money into that state. The two campaigns are playing two very different games.
The bigger issue here is the electoral college. So Trump needs to pick up at least two states where Romney lost in 2012 — and probably more than that. Start with the 2012 map (you can game it out here), and Clinton would win 332 electoral votes to Trump's 206. If we give Trump Washington, he's still down by 102 electoral votes. He'd also need to win Florida and Ohio and one other state to win. (Trump trails in each of the 10 states with the closest results in 2012.) If Clinton wins Arizona, Trump could win Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida and still be trailing.
This is unbalanced. With 68 days until the election (and fewer than 30 until early voting starts), Clinton is able to push Trump back in places that should be safe for his candidacy. Trump's far from doomed, but he's in a very tenuous position. And if his strategy to reverse his fortunes is to spend more time and money in places that no one seriously thinks he can win, it's difficult to see how his position improves.