In the final days before a presidential election, the most telling signal of how things are going is not the bravado and bluster you hear from the campaigns, but the tactical decisions they make about where to deploy in the precious time that remains.

If candidates and their top surrogates show up in unexpected places, it can be a sign for good or ill. Right now, indications suggest President Trump’s team sees itself in a dire situation, while former vice president Joe Biden’s is sensing not only a victory but also the possibility of a rout.

Trump is filling his days with big, in-person rallies in defiance of the surge in covid-19 cases. But with few exceptions — such as last weekend’s stop at an airport in New Hampshire, a state that he lost by a hair’s breadth in 2016 — they have been in territory he should be able to take for granted. It is a defensive strategy, not one that suggests the president sees big opportunities to expand the playing field.

Since he spoke in Charlotte at the Republican National Convention in August, the president has traveled seven times to North Carolina, a state he won in 2016. But it is telling that he is spending more time than he should have to stumping in more conservative, rural areas and small towns. “Those are the people he shouldn’t have to worry about,” says Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster with long experience in the state.

Biden has been traveling far less, but he is stepping up his schedule. He and his top surrogates are also going deeper into what is normally red territory, as evidenced by his campaign’s announcement on Monday that the former vice president will be heading at the end of the week to Iowa, a state Trump carried by nearly 10 points in 2016.

But flipping red states to blue is not the only reason campaigns might make these decisions. I, for one, am skeptical that my home state of Texas will end up in the Democratic presidential column, absent a national landslide of a proportion not indicated by the current polling. But sending Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the party’s vice-presidential nominee, there at the end of the week makes sense for other reasons. The state is seeing massive early voter turnout, and many Democrats there believe they are within reach of taking control of the Texas House by picking up at least nine of the chamber’s 150 seats.

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center warns that the president is doing the work of our foreign adversaries by undermining the legitimacy of the U.S. election. (The Washington Post)

That would break the grip that Republicans have had over all the levers of power in the state since 2003 and could have enormous consequences for once-a-decade redistricting next year, which is expected to see Texas pick up three additional seats in the U.S. House.

Harris reportedly plans to make a stop in Houston, which would also send a reassuring signal to the oil industry that Biden’s proposed “transition” from fossil fuels to renewable energy would not come too quickly. And her swing through Texas could also help generate more enthusiasm among Hispanics, where Biden has been underperforming.

But keep an eye out for late-breaking changes in both campaigns’ schedules. In 2016, the final weekend saw both campaigns scrambling their plans as a narrow path to victory for Trump emerged.

The Republican nominee and his running mate, Mike Pence, laid on a swing through Minnesota, where his internal polling suddenly showed him within three points of winning a state that had not voted for a Republican for president since Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 landslide. Trump fell just short there, losing to Hillary Clinton by less than two points.

Meanwhile, Clinton’s operation suddenly realized it was in trouble in deep-blue Michigan and dispatched both the candidate and then-President Barack Obama to the state. The salvage operation came too late: Trump slipped past her on Election Day and won Michigan by less than half a percentage point.

Clinton’s campaign also made some decisions during the closing weeks that were, in retrospect, inexplicable — for instance, dispatching first lady Michelle Obama to Arizona, a state that turned out to be an unrealistic prospect.

Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, insists — as he did to me that final weekend of 2016 — that there are encouraging “trend lines” for the president. He says the Republican campaign is seeing growth in support in central and western Pennsylvania. And once again, he says, Trump is likely to make a late pitch for Minnesota, where the campaign may be sending him once or twice between now and next Tuesday.

With less than a week to go before Election Day, there is little that either campaign can do to change the general trajectory of the race. But if there is any lesson that both sides should have learned in 2016, it is to be on the lookout against missed opportunities.

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