America's battlegrounds: The Blue Wall and the Red Sea

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The Blue Wall

Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin

In 2016, Donald Trump promised his supporters that he would 'build that wall' (on the Mexican border), but it was a demolition job rather than a construction project that got him elected.

I speak of the breaching of the "Blue Wall" -- or the 18 states that have historically voted democratic. Most have remained faithfully Democratic, but in 2016, Trump won the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Breaking through with the rusty tools lying around in a region once famed for manufacturing. Tapping into the anger of the white working class resulting from a pervasive sense of economic insecurity (fueled by Trump: the whole world, according to him, was after their jobs); and a latent sense that white Americans -- especially those who didn't attend college -- were being left behind as diversity trended. Hillary Clinton's characterisation of Trump voters as "the deplorables", and her complacency about the blue wall on the banks of the great lakes, probably cost her the Presidency.

She lost Pennsylvania by less than 70,000 votes, Wisconsin by just over 27,000, and Michigan by just under 12,000. These added up to just .09 per cent of the total votes cast nationwide. The 3 million votes that Clinton beat Trump nationally, counted for nothing.

In the American system, you can lose an election and win the White House.

The nationwide popular doesn't determine the presidency. Popular votes in individual states, do. The president is decided by an electoral college of 538 electors, with each state sending a fixed number.

It's a winner take all system. Even if a candidate wins a state by a single vote, he/she takes all its electors. Pennsylvania's 20, Michigan's 16, and Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes all went to Trump. As did the presidency.

The results of 2016 turned the three states into swing states in 2020.

Among these, Pennsylvania is seen as the biggest prize. A number of credible polls have Biden maintaining a consistent 5-6 point lead in Pennsylvania, but the state has become difficult to call.

A hard core of Trump supporters express the fear the president is channeling -- that America will turn into a socialist state if Biden is elected. But farmers across the mid-west were hurt by Trump's policies, like his trade war with China. Neither have the old economy jobs that were lost decades ago when Bruce Springsteen started describing the decline of industries like steel or coal come back as Trump had repeatedly promised.

One group that Trump has attempted to woo is the suburban woman. All indications are that they will turn out in large numbers, but not for Trump. He asks them to "love him", but exposes his last century prejudice with breath-taking ease when he says he will get their "husbands back to work". (So they can return to household chores?)

Pennsylvania is critical for Trump, which is why he will spend the last day before the election in the state, and also why his campaign has a specially designed misinformation campaign aimed at voters in the state. The idea is to sow doubt in the voter's mind about the integrity of the process, and incite supporters to intimidate voters by selling the false narrative that widespread voter fraud is taking place. "You have to watch them very closely," said Trump to his supporters. The subtext: try and scare democratic voters off.

It hasn't helped that there are a number of legal entanglements regarding mail-in ballots -- which will account for a sizeable portion of the votes cast because of the pandemic.

For the moment, Pennsylvania will count ballots what reach within three days after the November 3 election, but the US Supreme Court has left the door open to revisit that.

The ruling affects another battleground state, North Carolina. Where votes that are mailed by election day may be counted in if they arrive nine days post as things stand. But the Supreme Court may change its mind after election day.

The bizarre situation of ballots first being counted and then being discounted may well arise in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. This may have seemed improbable in America, but a very real possibility in Trumpistan.

In Michigan, polls had Biden winning by over 15 points in July. Things have tightened considerably since then, and in has filmmaker Michael Moore worried. Moore is from Flint, Michigan, and knows the state better than most.

In 2016, going against the projections of all the pollsters, Moore predicted that Trump would win Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin -- and the presidency. He was right. And now, he feels a sense of de ja vu.

He told 'The Hill' that he doesn't believe the polls. "The Trump vote is always being undercounted" (in polling), he said. Moore's math advise is to cut the Biden predicted leads in half to be realistic. Doing that, he says, will bring everything within the margin of error. Just the kind of error pollsters made in 2016 in states like Michigan.

According to him, enthusiasm among Trump supporters in through the roof in this election, and the president is optimistic enough to skip strongholds in the state and holding rallies in counties Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Trump believes that his calls to "liberate Michigan" will work in his favour. The state's Democrat governor Gretchen Whitmer is a favourite target for Trump who accuses her of imprisoning Michiganders through the pandemic.

Trump refers to the governor with the special respectfulness he reserves for women ("that woman in Michigan"; "half-Whitmer" and so on), but polls have found that the governor's approval ratings for her handling of the pandemic climb with each attack, and are consistently 10 points higher than the president's numbers.

At rallies in the state, the president claps as the crowds reprise one of 2016's greatest anti-Clinton hits, "Lock her up", targeting Whitmer.

That may literally have happened. The FBI unearthed a plot to kidnap the governor -- and then put her on 'trial' in a Trumpistan court. The main conspirators were among the armed men who demonstrated outside the state house earlier this year, responding to Trump's calls to liberate Michigan.

The president's dog whistles inciting violent civil unrest seem to have receptive ears in Michigan. Republicans went to court arguing that 'voters' be allowed to carry weapons to polling places -- and won.

Addressing the nation (and indeed the world), Trump instructed White supremacist groups "stand back and stand by", during the first Presidential debate. His boys now await further orders, armed. (Just a quick reminder, we are talking about Michigan, not Mirzapur).

Kenosha, Wisconsin, saw exactly how the movie plays out. In August, a black man called Jacob Blake was shot four times by the police as he tried to get into his car, leading to Black Lives Matter protests. Blake survived, but is paralysed from waist down-in hospital, the police took the added precaution of handcuffing him to his bed.

White militias and vigilante groups poured into town. On the third day of protests, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from Illinois had brought his AR-15 shot at protesters, killing one.

Rittenhouse could be seen in videos, arms raised, rifle slung around his shoulder, people shouting he's just shot a man around him, as a he approached a police vehicle. It passed him by without so much as a question.

Rittenhouse was located the next day, arrested and charged, all very politely. He has argued self-defence, and the president is his most prominent advocate.

The polarisation of Wisconsin over race might have meant an advantage in predominantly white Wisconsin, but Trump's abysmal handling of the pandemic seems to matter more. Two days ago, an ABC news Washington Post poll had Biden up by a whopping 17 points, with a 94 per cent chance of winning.

There's a counterview to that. From one of the few people who got 2016 right. Robert Cahaly, a Republican pollster with the Trafalgar Group told Politico, that the "shy Trump voter", who pollsters failed to recognise in the last election is even more of a factor this time.

"Will Biden win the popular vote? Probably. I'm not even debating that. But I think Trump is likely to have an electoral college victory", said Cahaly.

And it will be the shy voter, showing up in states like Wisconsin who will help him scale the Blue Wall once again.

The Red Sea

Georgia, Arizona

Looking at an American map on the night results are announced, vast swathes of the country down middle appear red. A Republican victory? Not necessarily.

The Red Sea is a group of states Republicans have considered bankable over the last seven election cycles-typically, these are in sparsely populated, primarily rural parts of America. In a presidential election, they could be worth as many as 158 electoral college votes, more than halfway to the White House.

But not when the Red Sea shows signs that it is receding. 2020 is one of those years.

Georgia's 16 electoral votes-which have gone to Republicans in six of the last seven elections-are far from a certainty for Trump.

Biden and Trump are locked in a statistical tie according to polls. This is a state that Trump took by over 5 points in 2016, marginally outperforming predictions.

What has changed?

Primarily, Georgia's demographics, and the inability of the Republican party to keep pace with the change. In 1996, when Bill Clinton lost the state to his opponent Bob Dole, 77 per cent of the voters were white. That number is down to 60 now.

The diversity and growth have gone hand in hand. The state added nearly 8,00,000 voter registrations after the state's close 2018 gubernatorial race is hard to say. But the new voters are mainly young people, a substantial number of whom are people of colour.

The pandemic has changed the nature of this election and will possibly be the single biggest factor in determining who wins, but remember the name Rayshard Brooks?

Less than a month after George Floyd was killed by policemen in Minneapolis, Brooks fell asleep in his car outside an Atlanta, Georgia, drive-through restaurant. A confrontation with the police led to his shooting and death.

In a state where close to every third person is black, the backlash was inevitable. Simmering race divisions boiled over, Atlanta burned.

These divisions are bound to be reflected in the polls-this part of the red sea is turning purple.

The arid lands of Arizona have produced one of modern America's great heroes. Senator John McCain ran for president against Barack Obama in 2008. That campaign was unsuccessful, but his stature remained undiminished till his death in 2018. As he ailed, waiting for the inevitable, he expressed a wish: Donald Trump not be invited to his funeral.

McCain was the embodiment of the essential decency that pre-Trump conservatives have in common. It is a powerful group, shrinking and somewhat subdued at the moment, but very much there. As are their supporters. Joe Biden may belong to the opposite camp, but he has much more of the spirit of John McCain in him.

Trump's crude attacks on McCain and his private disdain for the armed forces cannot have played well in Arizona. McCain spent six years in a Vietnamese prison, enduring torture and refusing the Vietcong's offers of early release once his captors became aware that the young pilot was from a distinguished military family. Trump, who avoided the draft because of 'bone spurs', refused to acknowledge McCain was a war hero. "He was captured. I don't like people who get captured."

This attitude filters down to policy. Trump is against spending resources rescuing people who are injured or go missing in battle. He thinks of soldiers who have died for their country as "losers".

The pandemic will play its role in Arizona, as will Trump's immigration policies (it has a long border with Mexico, and a large Latino population), but if there was one state in the country where this election is about character, Arizona could be it. And on that count, Trump filed for bankruptcy ages ago.

This is why Arizona's 11 electoral votes could now go to a democrat-because a large number of Arizona's voters don't want them to Trump. According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump trails Biden by 3 points in a state he won by about 4 per cent in 2016.

Post script: Maricopa county, Arizona is the county that has added the most number people through the last few years, making it more diverse. This typically helps the Democrats.

To return as president, Trump realistically needs to retain all five of these states. If he loses Pennsylvania and Georgia, for instance, the rest won't matter.

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