Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton faces a striking choice in the final three weeks of the campaign: to expand her efforts to states that Democrats haven’t won in a generation, or to stay a current course that, if conditions hold, would deliver her a resounding electoral college victory.
Clinton aides said they see advantages to running up the score in the electoral college, where 270 votes wins the White House. Victories in unexpected places could boost that total, handing her more of a mandate come January and decreasing the potency of Trump’s complaints of a “rigged” election.
But victories in core battleground states such as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire would almost assuredly cut off Trump’s path as well. Those states are also home to key down-ballot races that will determine control of the Senate, an important factor in how much support Clinton would have while launching an agenda in January.
“It’s true more and more states are emerging as truly competitive,” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said. “We are closely following the situations in those states even as we refuse to take anything for granted in the core battlegrounds, which also happen to be the sites of some of the biggest Senate races.”
The issue is predominantly about resources. Clinton and the Democratic Party entered October with twice as much money in the bank as Trump and the Republicans, but some in Clinton’s camp have cautioned against any late moves that could jeopardize a victory in states she appears to have nailed down.
“We’ve got to get our win,” said a senior Clinton aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the campaign’s strategy. “We have to make sure we focus on keeping the pressure on and doing the things we need to build up as many electoral votes as we can.”
The campaign is expected to decide in the coming days whether to make a more aggressive play for states such as Georgia, which is being eyed as one of the more promising opportunities for Clinton, and Arizona, where a couple of high-profile surrogates are being deployed this week: Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) on Tuesday and Chelsea Clinton on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign is not willing to concede publicly that any states on the map are lost, maintaining that Clinton’s low favorability ratings and Trump’s anti-establishment message will push undecided voters and independents to break for Trump in the final leg of the campaign.
“We’re seeing a much more competitive contest than you’re analyzing them to be. We’re still playing a very active role in these states and obviously making as big of a play as possible,” said Trump spokesman Jason Miller. “There isn’t anything that’s not a priority. We don’t want to isolate it and say, everything comes down to these states.”
Added Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway: “Every time they get overconfident, we snap back.”
Conway said there may be a need to reallocate resources in the remaining weeks, but she noted that it’s “a little premature” to announce when or where that might happen.
“There’s no shame in saying we’re going to reallocate our resources, dollars, personnel, data operation, ground game, candidate time, both [Indiana Gov. Mike] Pence’s and Trump’s time, in places where we’re more competitive,” she said.
The shifting poll numbers come amid the nastiest stretch of this year’s campaign, in which a videotape emerged showing Trump bragging in lewd terms about forcing himself on women sexually. Following the video’s publication in The Washington Post on Oct. 7, multiple women have accused Trump of kissing or groping them without their consent.
Both Trump and his running mate, Pence, have hinted that they recognize the shift. Trump has stepped up his disparagement of a “rigged” election at campaign stops across the country and on social media, urging his supporters to monitor polling places closely on Nov. 8.
On Sunday, Trump noted on Twitter that there are national polls showing him within striking distance of Clinton despite the intense media focus on the accusations against him.
“Polls close, but can you believe I lost large numbers of women voters based on made up events THAT NEVER HAPPENED. Media rigging election!” Trump tweeted.
Pence sought to play down Trump’s rhetoric, saying, “We will absolutely accept the result of the election,” during an appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” But he also appeared to embrace, at least partly, the notion of a “rigged” election.
“The American people are tired of the obvious bias in the national media,”Pence said. “That’s where the sense of a rigged election goes here.”
Even as some polls have shown Clinton with only a modest lead nationally — one published Sunday by The Washington Post had her up four points over Trump — her advantage on the electoral map appears sizable.
One such tally, maintained by The Post’s blog The Fix, projects that Clinton would win 341 electoral votes to Trump’s 197 if the election were held today.
Several states that Trump initially sought to contest, including Colorado and Virginia, have now seemingly slipped out of reach. Clinton was up by 15 points in Virginia, according to a poll released Sunday by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. And Trump has pulled resources from Virginia.
Trump’s failure to perform in such states, Clinton aides said, will allow her campaign to shift attention even more to North Carolina and Florida — two must-win states for Trump — to choke his path to 270 electoral votes.
Clinton is running television ads tailored to seven states: Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio and Iowa. Because they cost millions of dollars to sustain, such ad purchases are the clearest clue about which states are a campaign’s top priority.
The vast majority of Clinton’s campaign appearances and those of her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, have been concentrated in those states, and most of the high-profile surrogates dispatched by the campaign have focused their efforts there as well.
Trump’s campaign now appears intent on remaining competitive in four battleground states: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
He has maintained a far busier travel schedule than Clinton, hitting all four of those states last week, as well as New Hampshire and Maine. Trump appeared in Florida on three consecutive days last week, underscoring how crucial the state is to his strategy.
Trump will spend the early part of this week in Wisconsin and Colorado before heading to Nevada for Wednesday’s debate. His campaign operations in key battlegrounds continue to suffer from ongoing tensions with both state and national GOP establishments and a dearth of on-the-ground investments.
Last week, the campaign fired Trump's state co-chairman in Virginia, Corey Stewart, after he took part in a protest against the Republican National Committee.
In Ohio, where Trump has fallen behind in the polls, the campaign severed ties with Matt Borges, the chairman of the state Republican Party. In a scathing letter, Trump’s Ohio state director, Robert Paduchik, accused Borges of going on a “self-promotional media tour with state and national outlets to criticize our party’s nominee.”
While the Clinton campaign has begun exploring new opportunities, it has also redoubled its efforts in some of its strongest states. The campaign increased investments recently in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Nevada, according to a Democrat who was familiar with the strategy but was not authorized to speak publicly.
The planned visits to Arizona this week by Sanders and Chelsea Clinton, meanwhile, mark what some Democrats see as a longer-term shift in the state’s electoral politics.
Only one Democrat — Bill Clinton — has carried Arizona since 1948. Bill Clinton lost the state in 1992 but narrowly prevailed in 1996.
Alexis Tameron, the state’s Democratic party chairwoman, said the demographics of the state are trending in the right direction for Democrats, and the state’s voting patterns could resemble Colorado within a few cycles.
Even as it weighs whether to invest heavily in new states, the Clinton campaign is increasingly reaching out to voters in those places through local media, an effort to maintain a presence without reallocating resources to the state.
Kaine spoke to a Salt Lake City television station remotely from New York on Thursday, relaying that the Clinton campaign wants to step up its focus on the state, which Democrats have not won since 1964.
“Hopefully we’ll even have candidates or spouses or high-profile surrogates visit,” Kaine told KTVX. “We’re 3 1/2 weeks out in a state that we didn’t think was in play. Now it is.”
In Georgia, where the last Democrat to carry the state was Bill Clinton in 1992, there’s a clear sense that the contest is more meaningful than in recent cycles, said Michael Smith, communications director for the Georgia Democratic Party.
“Instead of using Georgia to mobilize people to go to North Carolina, they’re staying in our state. It’s night and day,” Smith said.
Democrats are running coordinated campaigns in the battleground states, meaning money is being to spent to promote the entire ticket, not just Clinton.
That stands to benefit Democratic Senate candidates, including Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania, Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, Deborah Ross in North Carolina and Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada — all of whom are in competitive races.
Priorities USA Action, the pro-Clinton super PAC, is considering devoting television air time to Senate races in four states: Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, according to a person familiar with the discussions. A decision is expected to be made by the middle of the week.
In an effort to help down-ballot candidates across the country, Clinton and her surrogates, especially President Obama, have stepped up their case against Republicans in general, seeking to steer voters away from giving congressional candidates a pass for “enabling” Trump.
“I mean, I know some of them now are walking away, but why did it take you this long?” Obama said at a campaign stop for Clinton in Cleveland on Friday.