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    Can Trump win? Yes. But the path is narrow and difficult.

    Synopsis

    Trump’s obstacles are considerably higher this time. He is an unpopular incumbent in the midst of a pandemic and an economic decline. He is facing a much different opponent, Joe Biden, who has carefully studied Clinton’s mistakes.

    Reuters
    Republicans have been trying, with legislation and court battles, to restrict absentee balloting, which could make the difference in a close election.
    US Election
    By Adam Nagourney

    President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 is remembered for defying polls and stunning Democrats. But in many ways, it was not a surprise.

    He prevailed with a piercing outsider message on jobs, immigration, China and trade. He restrained himself on Twitter in the final weeks while portraying his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as hostile to the economically disenfranchised blue-collar voters flocking to his rallies. His campaign worked systematically to drive up margins of white voters in battleground states that Democrats had largely taken for granted.

    Trump’s obstacles are considerably higher this time. He is an unpopular incumbent in the midst of a pandemic and an economic decline. He is facing a much different opponent, Joe Biden, who has carefully studied Clinton’s mistakes.

    Yet with two weeks until Election Day, Trump retains a narrow path to victory, in the view of many analysts, that would require him to draw on his most effective tactics from 2016 and make fundamental changes in his campaign style to expand his appeal beyond his political base. He also needs Biden to make a mistake.

    The clearest road for Trump is to hold one of the three states he snatched from Democrats in 2016 — Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin — as well as the rest of his winning electoral map, including Arizona and Florida, where Biden is now competitive. Polls indicate that is a daunting task but not an impossible one, particularly if he succeeds again in driving up support among working-class voters, including in rural areas he dominated in 2016, while holding down Biden’s support among nonwhite voters.

    Still, interviews with 21 Republican and Democratic strategists, many of whom have worked for other presidential campaigns over the past 30 years, suggest that Trump will need some eleventh-hour disruptions in the race. That might include a bad stumble by Biden in the debate Thursday or on the trail, court rulings or Republican tactics that suppress the Democratic vote, and a GOP ground game that turns out voters who may not have been counted by pollsters.

    And Trump will need to bring discipline to the campaign trail that has so far eluded him, the strategists say. That will mean presenting a forceful and uncluttered appeal that he is better able than Biden to rebuild the economy, while trying yet again to draw a contrast between himself and an opponent he has sought to portray as ideologically too far to the left to run the nation.

    In the end, most strategists said the single best hope for Trump was for Biden to do something to worry or alienate swing voters whom Trump has already driven into the Democratic camp. And counting on your opponent to make a fatal mistake in the final days is rarely a good strategy.

    Expand the Electorate
    Republicans have shown success in registering new voters in states like Florida and Pennsylvania. That could be important in building on a key part of the president’s 2016 strategy: turning out working-class white Americans who have not voted before.

    “There are few days left to change the trajectory of the race,” said Sara Fagen, who was the White House political director for President George W. Bush. “Trump’s best chance at this point would be to dramatically boost turnout among noncollege-educated white voters in the industrial Midwest.”

    Even optimistic Democrats say this is a cause for concern.

    “The Republicans have been laser-focused on growing the electorate this time,” said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 campaign for president. “The Republicans have a better operation on the ground than anything we’ve seen since 2004.”

    And isn’t only white working-class voters. Polling suggests that Trump is doing as well or slightly better with Black and Latino voters in some states than he was in 2016 against Clinton.

    Focus on the Map
    Biden is competitive in several states that Trump won in 2016: Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Some polls also show Biden with a significant lead in Florida, which has long been the Lucy-and-the-football state for Democratic presidential candidates.

    But any road to reelection for Trump leads through Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. He is unlikely to win without at least one of those three 2016 upset states (and ideally two), though which ones offer him the best opportunity changes by the day.

    Some analysts have suggested he pour resources into Wisconsin, which began in-person early voting Tuesday. “It’s quite a challenge for him,” said Katherine Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It seems like Biden is really holding his own here.”

    From there, he can turn to cobbling together the electoral votes he needs to reach 270 — by holding Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia and potentially grabbing Nevada, Minnesota or New Hampshire from the Democrats. More than anything, Trump cannot lose Florida.

    Biden enjoys big leads in many national polls, but the race is tighter in many of these states. That may prove significant if some state polls are off, as they were in 2016, though pollsters say that is not likely. “Go back and look at October 2016,” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House. “This was the time of the panic over the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, when everyone knew that Trump was dead. I always said he was going to win.”

    COVID-19
    Trump could limit the continuing political damage from his management of the pandemic, analysts said, if he stopped offering chipper assessments of the coronavirus and ceased presenting himself as evidence that a disease that has killed more than 220,000 people is not a big threat. Then he could turn to issues that would expand his appeal, particularly to women and older voters.

    “He should take coronavirus seriously,” said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic consultant and veteran of presidential campaigns. “He should start chairing COVID meetings. Do some joint appearances with Anthony Fauci. Show some empathy for people whose lives have been lost. Stop talking about himself.”

    Karl Rove, the senior strategist for Bush, said that Trump could seek to blunt Biden’s attacks on the White House’s management of the pandemic by pointing to Biden’s own response during the winter.

    “There’s a lot of information out there that a disciplined campaign could use to say to Biden, ‘What you and your advisers were saying and doing then shows you didn’t have it right and all this criticism is Monday morning quarterbacking,’ ” Rove said.

    Showing More Discipline
    One of the reasons Trump won in 2016 was that he began exhibiting more discipline in the final weeks of his campaign: less tweeting and trolling.

    If he were to reprise that, perhaps he could get weary Americans to give him one last look.

    “Trump must turn to the disciplined teleprompter demeanor he used during the last two weeks of 2016,” said Charlie Black, a veteran of many Republican presidential contests. “He must talk about two issues only: the economy and the Democrats’ plan to pack the Supreme Court.”

    But in 2016, Trump was not dealing with a pandemic. He was out-hustling Clinton on the campaign trail every day, and she was dealing with a daily influx of bad news.

    And if there is anything the political world has learned over these past four years, it is that Trump does not pivot. If he is getting take-the-high-road advice from his strategists, there is no sign that he is following it, as despondent Republicans were reminded this week when he started attacking Fauci.

    A Biden Stumble
    Trump has always counted on Biden having a mental lapse that would underscore the president’s contention that the former vice president has lost something on his fastball. Biden has provided plenty of missteps over the years to encourage that kind of hope. But that did not happen at the first debate, and Trump has been frustrated in his attempts to exploit Biden’s stumbles on the campaign trail.

    There is one more debate and two more weeks of campaigning that will give Trump an opportunity to maintain pressure on his opponent — with attacks on the business dealings of his son Hunter Biden, for instance — in hopes of forcing a mistake that could bring back some swing voters whom Trump has lost.

    Suppression and Challenges
    Republicans have been trying, with legislation and court battles, to restrict absentee balloting, which could make the difference in a close election.

    “Surround the counters; find friendly governors and commissioners who won’t certify the vote,” said Susan Estrich, who managed the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis. Stuart Stevens, a Republican consultant who is now a critic of the president, said that Trump’s “only realistic hope is voter suppression through every means possible.”

    Trump has surprised the world before. But even accounting for his loyal base and his tenacity as a campaigner, Republicans and Democrats say Trump’s political future may now be out of his hands.

    “It’s been locked in for months and is now moving away from him even further post-debate,” said Mark Salter, a senior adviser to Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. “I suppose some unforeseen catastrophe or huge Biden mistake might reverse the trend, but it seems pretty clear that a majority of voters want to get Trump the hell out of there before he screws up even more.”
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