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For Biden to Prevail, He'll Need to Survive a Trump Onslaught Targeted to Working-Class Whites

David Wasserman
September 3, 2020

This article was originally published at nbcnews.com on September 1, 2020

It's too soon to say whether last week's RNC made any dent in the polls. But it did make clear President Trump's chief line of attack going forward: after months of drifting between calling Joe Biden senile or soft on China, Trump and Republicans have settled on recasting Biden as a "Trojan Horse for the radical left" who would promote lawlessness and disorder, "abolish" the suburbs and crash stock markets.

It's an admission that Trump needs to distract attention away from voters' top concern, COVID-19. And Trump's rhetorical fusillades against "Democrat-run cities" are a tell of a fall strategy heavy on pumping up his base from 2016: small town, working-class whites.

So far this summer, Biden has polled spectacularly in suburbs — even historically GOP ones in the Sun Belt — thanks to his strength among college-educated whites. In an average of live-interview polls taken in August, Biden led Trump among that group 56 percent to 39 percent, compared to Hillary Clinton's 50 percent to 38 percent lead in final 2016 polls. But he's also polling impressively among whites without college degrees: August polls show Biden trailing Trump 35 percent to 57 percent among that group, narrower than Clinton's 30 percent to 58 percent deficit in 2016.

However, against the backdrop of civil unrest in Kenosha and Portland, Biden's support in the latter group is more fragile. Although Biden, a Catholic from Scranton, has long been considered something of a patron saint of blue-collar Democrats, blue-collar whites tend to pay less attention to politics per day than others and live in pro-Trump settings where the local news and information ecosystem, driven by Facebook and other social media sites, is much friendlier to Trump's view of the world.

It's in those places where Trump's onslaught of attacks, including falsely accusing Biden of wanting to "defund the police," stands the best chance of resonating and where Biden will need to claw to hang on to the voters who currently find him plainly acceptable.

Biden's current lead in swing states is attributable to voters like Ralph Perkins, an 89-year-old retired mining engineer from Canonsburg, Pa., 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, who told the New York Times earlier this month that "the one thing could lead him to vote a second time for Mr. Trump would be if Mr. Biden supported defunding the police. 'Biden, I think he’s very much superior to Trump,' Mr. Perkins said. 'Do I think he’s perfect? I’m not head over heels for him, but I think he’s fine.'”

In addition to trying to pry voters like Perkins loose, Trump hopes his "law and order" message will turn up more voters like 55-year-old carpenter Mike Mazza, Jr., who lives in Carbondale, Pa., in the opposite corner of the state. Earlier this month, Mazza Jr. told the Philadelphia Inquirer that after sitting out 2016, he believes Democrats have gone too far left and "I'm just sorry I didn't wake up soon enough to vote for [Trump] the first time."

Biden doesn't have much downside risk with this type of voter in Sun Belt states. In 2016, whites without college degrees made up just 34 percent of all voters in Texas, and Trump won them 78 percent to 18 percent, according to an NBC News analysis of Census and voting data. In Georgia, they made up just 38 percent of all voters and Trump won them by a whopping 82 percent to 14 percent.

By contrast, Trump's opportunity to grow his vote and get back into contention lies with blue-collar whites in Great Lakes battleground states. In Minnesota, whites without degrees made up 54 percent of all 2016 voters and Trump won them by a more modest 58 percent to 34 percent. In Wisconsin, whites without degrees made up a massive 60 percent of the vote and Trump carried them 58 percent to 36 percent.


Trump Still has Room to Grow with Blue-Collar Whites in Midwestern Battlegrounds


As Labor Day approaches, Biden remains very much on offense but is entering a phase when he'll need to play "prevent defense" against Trump's increasingly bellicose attacks. Without the kind of door-to-door field effort the Trump campaign has proven willing to undertake, Biden will likely have no choice but to air swing state ads forcefully confronting Trump's assertions about riots and police funding.

On the current trajectory, Biden has outstanding chances to flip traditionally GOP-leaning states like Arizona, Florida and perhaps even Georgia and Texas. But if he were to fail to effectively counter Trump's appeals to working-class whites, Minnesota and Wisconsin could turn into the next Iowa and Ohio.