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May 21, 2024

Trump’s Sun Belt Hopes and Rust Belt Needs

The Rust Belt map Trump drew in 2016 is still the one that leads to victory.

Donald Trump’s first election redrew the map of American politics; suddenly Pennsylvania and Michigan were in the Republican column for the first time since the 1980s.

But they didn’t stay there: The Rust Belt states that made Trump president in 2016 sent Joe Biden to the White House in 2020.

That second Trump election also redrew the map, this time forfeiting two Sun Belt states that had been Republican for decades, Arizona and Georgia, to the Democrats.

Which map will Trump draw this time?

Polls show him ahead in the Sun Belt and Rust Belt alike, and indications that Black and Hispanic voters are trending Trump’s way have Republicans giddy.

Will this election upend political demographics the way the last two shook up electoral geography?

The prospect is real — but Trump’s experience in 2020 contains a warning.

He can’t afford to be complacent about the Rust Belt no matter how dazzling the Sun Belt and its demographics seem today.

Yet it’s hard not to look on the bright side.

Trump is up five points in Arizona according to a CBS News poll released Sunday.

That fits with the six-point lead the latest New York Times/Siena poll found a week before.

Even more encouraging, the same NYT/Siena survey showed Trump up 13 points over Biden in Nevada, a state Republicans haven’t won in a presidential contest since 2004.

Georgia, too, is going red; no poll has shown a lead for the Democrat there since the Trump-Biden rematch got booked.

After four dour years of continual crises abroad and inflation at home, does sunshine now remind voters of Trump?

Two of Biden’s weaknesses are a special source of the Republican’s Sun Belt strength.

First, the incumbent can’t evade the blame for the mess on the southern border and his administration’s inability, or brazen unwillingness, to control immigration.

Arizona’s electorate is acutely conscious of the border situation, of course, but immigration is an urgent issue in Nevada and Georgia as well.

Georgia even recently passed legislation to crack down on local officials who shirk their duty to enforce immigration law.

Second, contrary to progressives’ expectations, the ethnic diversity of these Sun Belt states is starting to work to Trump’s advantage.

Black and Latino voters are defecting from Biden in droves, according to repeated rounds of NYT/Siena polling, which most recently found Trump virtually even with the Democrat among Hispanics.

Trump has a long way to go before he can equal Biden with Black voters, but for the incumbent to lose any support with a constituency that voted 92% for him in 2020 is a fire alarm.

Biden’s worried enough that he’s made recent appearances before Black audiences — including a commencement address at the historically Black Morehouse College on Sunday — occasions to sell himself hard to voters he would normally count on.

Even at Morehouse, the president is dogged by divisions his policies toward Israel cause in his own coalition.

Before Biden spoke, the graduating class’s valedictorian, DeAngelo Fletcher, drew applause for demanding “an immediate and permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.”

When Biden took the stage, some of the class turned their backs or walked out.

The crackup of the Democratic coalition doesn’t automatically put Trump back in the White House, however.

If he sweeps Arizona, Nevada and Georgia, the Republican still won’t have the Electoral College votes he needs unless he flips at least one more state.

The Rust Belt battlegrounds of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are his best prospects.

In these states, the white vote will likely decide the outcome.

Trump lost ground with whites nationwide in 2020, a fact that’s drawn less attention than Biden’s troubles with Blacks and Latinos.

According to a June 2021 Pew analysis, in 2020 Biden drastically cut into Trump’s support among suburban white voters compared to 2016, narrowing the Republican’s lead with them from a commanding 16% margin down to just 4%.

Even among whites without college degrees — a core component of Trump’s base — Biden made gains relative to Hillary Clinton’s performance in 2016, raising the Democrat share of non-college whites from 28% to 33%.

Because white voters nationally are still a majority, these declines in his 2020 white support were fatal to Trump’s reelection, more than counterbalancing gains with Hispanics.

And whites make up a larger majority in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin than they do in the country at large.

Trump should do everything he can to win the Sun Belt, and Black and Hispanic voters, away from Biden.

But his priority must be to win back the Rust Belt states and white voters he lost in 2020.

The Rust Belt map Trump drew in 2016 is still the one that leads to victory.

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