In the 2020 Democratic primaries, Joe Biden's main asset was the widespread sense among party voters that he was best qualified among the contenders to win back the White voters, especially those without college degrees, who allowed Donald Trump to capture Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2016 — and the presidency with them.
Now, a wide variety of public polls consistently show Biden leading in all three states, defending Minnesota (which Trump has targeted) and running nearly step by step with the President in Ohio and Iowa. With remarkable consistency across these states, polls show Biden benefiting from similar trends, as he attracts a large majority of about 55% or more of white college-educated voters; a predominant majority of about four-fifths of African Americans; and about two-fifths of whites without college degrees, a number that while modest, represents a clear improvement over Hillary Clinton anemic showing with them in 2016.
If Biden holds all of the 20 states Clinton won in 2016 and regains Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, he will win -- whether or not he captures any of his targets across the Sun Belt, or for that matter, Ohio or Iowa.
But unlike Clinton, who slighted Michigan and Wisconsin in campaign visits and advertising, Biden has remained laser-focused on these three states. According to CNN ad tracking, he's spent more on television advertising in Pennsylvania than in any other state except Florida, which is much larger; he is outspending Trump on television by about 2-to-1 or more in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin alike. Biden has also devoted many of his relatively few personal campaign appearances to those states, usually appearing before working-class audiences. Biden is "visibly campaigning for working-class votes, speaking to those who had voted for Trump and saying, I hear you," said Greenberg, who first became prominent for his landmark focus groups after the 1984 election documenting White working-class defection from the Democrats in blue-collar Macomb County outside Detroit.
The fundamental challenge for Democrats in the Rust Belt is that Whites without college degrees remain a much larger share of the vote there than in the contested states across the Sun Belt. In 2020, non-college-educated Whites are expected to compose 60% of the voters in Iowa, 55% in Wisconsin, 52% in Ohio, 51% in Michigan and just under half in Minnesota (49%) and Pennsylvania (48%), according to projections by the nonpartisan States of Change project shared exclusively with CNN.
By contrast, States of Change projects that those non-college Whites will represent only about two-fifths of voters in Florida, North Carolina, Nevada and Arizona and just around one-third in Georgia, Virginia and Texas.
College-educated Whites, who are trending more Democratic, will grow slightly in each state as a share of voters and likely cast about one-third of the vote in all of them; non-Whites, including small but growing populations of Hispanics and Asians, will increase in almost all of them as well, though much more modestly than in the Sun Belt. Non-Whites, according to States of Change, will compose about 1-in-5 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, but only around 1-in-10 or less in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. (By contrast, voters of color may cast about two-fifths of the vote in many of the Sun Belt states.) All of this tilts the hill slightly, but perceptibly, away from Trump this time.
Though the Democratic gubernatorial candidates fell short in Iowa and Ohio, the most Republican-leaning of these states, they significantly expanded on Clinton's vote share in the counties centered on Des Moines and Columbus, respectively. This wave, more mildly, reached even into Wisconsin, where the preponderantly White so-called WOW counties outside Milwaukee -- Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington -- have remained more resolutely Republican than almost any suburban counties outside the South. Yet even there, Democrat Tony Evers cut Republican Gov Scott Walker's margins by about 25,000 votes from 2014, while narrowly ousting him from office.
Democrats are confident that this metropolitan recoil from the GOP hasn't peaked. Virtually all public polls in these six states show Biden winning a majority of college-educated White voters against Trump; Biden's share of them in these surveys generally ranges from just over 50% in Ohio to around 55% in Iowa and Michigan to around 60% or more in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Republicans believe that concern about crime and disorder will help Trump stabilize his position in the suburbs. But observers from all points on the spectrum agree that he's facing towering discontent among suburban voters over his personal behavior and conduct, and his handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
"There are just lots of people who seem to be tired of the rhetoric that comes out of the Trump campaign, particularly suburban women with younger kids," says Lauren Copeland, an assistant professor of political science at Baldwin Wallace University near Cleveland who supervises a regular poll of the Rust Belt states. "They don't want them growing up in an America where the president refuses to condemn White supremacists. What I think is even moderate Republicans may be willing to go out and vote for a moderate or center-left Democrat."
Private Democratic analyses of the early vote show that college Whites are voting more heavily than any other group, including both non-college Whites and voters of color. Those sentiments will likely translate into even greater turnout and Democratic margins in booming white-collar counties, such as Franklin, Ohio; Dane, Wisconsin; Oakland, Michigan; Polk (Des Moines), Iowa; and Montgomery, Delaware and Chester in Pennsylvania.
Signs aren't as unequivocal, but Democrats are cautiously optimistic that Black turnout will recover at least somewhat from its 2016 decline. Adrian Hemond, a Michigan-based Democratic consultant, says there are red flags both about turnout and possible defection from Biden among younger Black men, but that among older African American voters the commitment to voting against Trump "from the polling we've done, particularly for Black voters over the age of 40, is very, very high."
Now again, all public polls across the Rust Belt states show that Trump remains strong among Whites without college degrees. But polls show he's not quite as strong with them as he was against Clinton. With remarkable consistency, public polls across all six of these states show Biden winning about 40% of Whites without college degrees, sometimes slightly more, but more typically slightly less. While Trump generally retains dominant (if sometimes slightly diminished) leads among White men without college degrees, many of these polls show Biden running much more competitively than Clinton did among blue-collar White women. Among both genders combined, he's performing much better among working-class Whites in the Rust Belt states than he is in the Sun Belt, where polls usually show him attracting only about 30% of them or less.
Democrats maintain a wary respect for Trump's capacity to mobilize his voters to the polls, as evidenced by their close attention to the high level of participation among non-college Whites in the early voting. But even if Trump can generate more turnout than pollsters expect among his small-town and rural supporters, he faces the likelihood that turnout will also rise in more populous areas, diluting the potential impact of his new voters.