NEW YORK — Democrats aligned with Hillary Clinton are laying the groundwork for a general election campaign focused primarily on the same battleground states that twice elected President Barack Obama, buying up ad time on local TV in an attempt to quietly shape the playing field before the Republicans choose a candidate.
The 2016 electoral map being drawn by pro-Clinton forces, according to ad reservations and interviews with high-level strategists and pollsters on both sides of the aisle, begins with a core group of familiar presidential swing states at the center of the fight — Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, Iowa, Virginia, and Colorado — with roughly a half-dozen other states on the periphery.
Those other states — which include Wisconsin, New Mexico, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, all perceived to be leaning toward the Democrats, and North Carolina, where the GOP is likely to begin with an edge — are thought to be competitive, though not yet at the point where they stand likely to flip their 2012 presidential vote in November.
And while operatives on both sides agree that Donald Trump, as the Republican nominee, could put more states in play on both sides, Clinton’s allies are for now putting their money on the traditional battlegrounds — not the rust-belt states where Trump insists he can steal Democratic votes, or traditionally red, but diverse, states like Arizona and Georgia where Clinton’s allies say she’d have a better shot with Trump as the GOP standard-bearer.
Democrats — led by Priorities USA Action, the biggest pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC — have already started spending heavily on ad reservations in strategically placed markets in the seven core states, investing early to maximize air time while rates are still low.
Priorities’ initial reservations so far include roughly $90 million in broadcast and cable spending in the seven states between June and Election Day — with the heaviest investments in expensive Florida and Ohio markets, according to The Tracking Firm, a group monitoring media buys.
“Even under the scenario where a white knight comes in to save the Republicans, the states where Priorities bought would still be battlegrounds,” explained Obama’s 2012 battleground states director Mitch Stewart, noting that the group’s early spending in states like Florida will oblige the Republicans — who carried it in every election between 1980 and 2004, save 1996 — to invest even more heavily there.
And since Republicans are unlikely to have a nominee before late July, added individuals close to GOP campaigns, conservative outside groups will have to spend considerably more to match Democratic spending as ad rates rise throughout the summer. In some scenarios, they fear, Democrats will be on the air defining the GOP nominee in key states, at a cheaper rate, before the Republican can even start seriously reserving ad time.
“What you have here is the foundation,” said David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Obama’s campaigns, noting that Priorities is likely anticipating a “glut” of spending in these media markets. “It’ll be interesting to see what ancillary buys they make, not just on TV, but radio, digital. This is just foundation-laying.”
Combined with Clinton’s continued travel to some of these swing states even after their primaries have concluded, the ad placements paint a picture of a party laying the groundwork for a relatively small universe of key battles but positioning itself for an expansion of that universe, even as Bernie Sanders continues to run competitively with Clinton. By contrast, the delegate war on the Republican side has been so consuming that it’s preventing any major conservative group or individual campaign from engaging in this level of long-term planning and spending.
Long before Democrats know the identity of their Republican general election opponent, the preliminary ad buys suggest that an offensive posture will be their baseline this summer, said operatives familiar with the PAC’s spending and the Clinton campaign’s thinking. If they are investing heavily in states like Florida, figure party leaders, they are already playing on turf that‘s must-win for Republicans, not for Democrats. No GOP nominee can win the White House without Florida, unlike a Democrat, explained multiple Republican campaign strategists.
Several top Democratic pollsters and strategists noted if Clinton is the nominee, she begins with an advantage on the swing state landscape. If she starts with Obama’s 2012 electoral college map as her foundation, she can still lose Florida, Ohio, and Virginia — the three biggest swing states — and reach the 270 electoral votes necessary to win.
While Clinton’s campaign doesn’t have many paid staffers left over in swing states that have already held their primaries, local allies are preparing to work hand-in-hand with state party infrastructures in coordinated campaigns. Clinton’s top political staffers have also, in some cases, been monitoring local Democratic field and financial programs for months.
The candidate herself has also made a point to personally visit some target states — and influential Democrats there — after their primary contests finished. For example, she held a series of closed-door fundraisers in Florida, Ohio, Colorado (hosted by Gov. John Hickenlooper), and Virginia (hosted by Gov. Terry McAuliffe) earlier this month.
Still, party leaders have been unable to plan for a specific strategy beyond the core states while Republicans remain caught in their pre-convention melee, since Trump and Ted Cruz — the likeliest nominees — could have different demographic and ideological appeals come November.
“It’s really difficult to talk about the electoral map without talking about who the Republican nominee is going to be,” said Whit Ayres, the pollster for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “If Ted Cruz is the nominee, you’re probably looking at an electoral map that is very close [to what] 2012 looked like.”
Trump’s unpredictable qualities make planning for him especially tricky. A state like Wisconsin, where exit polls showed up to 39 percent of Republicans would do something other than vote for Trump if he were the party’s standard bearer, might not even be on the watch list anymore. Even worse for Republicans, scattered public polls have suggested that a Trump candidacy could put such deep-red states as Utah and Mississippi into play, an almost unthinkable prospect for a GOP nominee.
But a best-case scenario electoral map has the billionaire increasing the turnout among white men in rust belt states — a possibility raised by his victory in Michigan and Clinton’s surprising loss to Sanders there — theoretically enabling Trump to compete in industrial states like Pennsylvania, where Republicans often win statewide but Democrats have dominated at the presidential level.
“If Trump is the nominee, I could see two scenarios: one would be a 1964[-style] blowout if he doesn’t course correct and moderate both his positions and his rhetoric. I could also see a scenario where, if he does course correct as the nominee, and comes out with a couple of mea culpas, [the race could become] very competitive,” said Stewart.
For the moment, the best hints about Democrats’ expectations and ambitions come from the specific market reservations within the first Priorities buy. Beyond the broadcast television reservations, for example, there is a preliminary plan to blanket all seven states on satellite TV for at least the final eight weeks before Election Day.
In Iowa, the first broadcast purchases are in Cedar Rapids, Davenport, and Des Moines — all in the Democrat-friendly central or eastern parts of the state where the bulk of the population lives, suggesting little attempt to persuade the right-leaning electorate in western Iowa, like in the Council Bluffs or Sioux City markets.
In Florida, the initial broadcast buys are in West Palm Beach, Orlando, and Tampa — costly markets that, according to Obama state director Steve Schale, cover approximately 55 percent of the statewide vote but 80 percent of the swing vote, implying an attempt to sway a persuadable population. Obama lost ground in West Palm Beach in 2012 compared to four years earlier, and the new heavy investment there could reflect an attempt to win some of that back for Clinton.
The Clinton campaign is keeping its eye on a similar core group of states as Priorities has targeted, viewing it as too early to seriously consider spending in “reach” states, according to people familiar with the team’s strategic planning.
But, predicted both Ayres and Democrats close to the campaign, Clinton’s calculus is likely to change after the Republican nomination is settled.
Clinton’s chief strategist Joel Benenson has said in interviews that he believes Clinton could put traditionally red states like North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona into play in a race against Trump, and influential Democrats in the South believe any attempt to do that by increasing African-American and Hispanic turnout could bring with it considerable implications for down-ballot races there, especially if Republican turnout is suppressed as a result of a Trump candidacy.
North Carolina, in particular — which Obama won in 2008, but which had not previously gone to a Democrat since Jimmy Carter — is high on the target list of local and national Democrats, many of whom expect to see spending there by November.
But such early targeting and investment only represents the base layer of spending, said Republicans and Democrats alike.
“The more interesting question is what they do after this. Do they expand into markets that have not traditionally been swing states?” Axelrod asked of Priorities. “There will be a second wave as this process goes forward. I would look at some of these other states, and it will be interesting to see if they’re looking at them for offensive or defensive purposes.”
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