July 17, 2020 109 days to Nov 03, 2020
The Surge

Slate’s guide to the 2020 races and politicians everyone’s talking about this week.

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, where we’ve been screaming at our team of agents to get the Twitter hacker to hack us.

This week, we look at swing states again, though the term doesn’t adequately apply to the present moment: They’re not very swingy when Joe Biden is enjoying a (FOR NOW) stable 10-point national lead. If (IF) that holds (IT WON’T) the more fun parlor game (UNTIL EVERYTHING COLLAPSES) is to guess how far the landslide can extend (UNTIL TRUMP MAGICALLY WINS). So sure, let’s (PREMATURELY CELEBRATE LIKE IDIOTS AND) fantasize about the Lone Star State (STOP IT).

Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and the outline of Texas.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week Up from last week #7

1. Texas

OK, fine, go for it.

There has been some recent discourse about whether Texas, while trending bluer, qualifies as a “swing state.” The question ultimately can only be resolved one way: through a volley of dueling open letters in niche literary magazines. But is Texas competitive in this environment, the Purge-like electoral cycle of no rules? Yes, and the Biden campaign is at least toying with a play for the state. It ran its first ad in Texas this week with a spot, titled “Tough TX,” focused on the recent coronavirus outbreak there. The size of the ad buy itself was modest, more likely intended as a way of creating a Beltway news cycle (congrats!) than as a pledge to go all-in on Texas, which would be an expensive proposition. It’s that cost, and the marginal Electoral College benefits that a Texas win would bring—yes, Texas has a lot of electoral votes, but if Democrats are winning there, they’re well over 270 electoral votes anyway—that have led the Surge in the past to question the wisdom of Biden spending serious money on the state. But three things are causing us to reconsider that position. First, Biden winning Texas, as the cherry on top of a landslide, would prompt a sort of existential crisis within the Republican Party. Second, major investment in Texas could help Democrats flip the statehouse, which would be aces heading into a redistricting year. Lastly, and most importantly: It’s not our money. Do whatever you want with it.

Rank 2

Last Week

2. Pennsylvania

Democrats’ useful trauma.

To further underscore what the (WOULD-BE, SUBJECT-TO-CHANGE) landslide would look like, consider Pennsylvania. Going by polling averages, the state has spent much of this summer occupying “tipping-point” status—i.e., the state most likely to provide the winner’s 270th, and clinching, electoral vote. Well, the current polling average has Biden up nearly 8 percentage points there, and a credible survey from Monmouth University this week pinned Biden’s lead in the state at 13 points. In other words: In this kind of (WOULD-BE, SUBJECT-TO-CHANGE) landslide environment, Biden would clinch the presidency with a state that can be called as easily for him as New Mexico was called for Hillary Clinton in 2016. As you can tell by our cowardly all-caps caveats, though, even in writing this analysis about potential landslides, we feel like we’re somehow jinxing the election. That 2016-related trauma seems to be on the minds of Pennsylvania voters as well. Despite Biden’s 13-point margin in the Monmouth poll, 46 percent of Pennsylvania voters say they expect Trump to win the state, compared with 45 percent for Biden. “One reason for this,” Monmouth wrote, “seems to be that most voters (57%) believe there are a number of so-called secret voters in their communities who support Trump but won’t tell anyone about it. Less than half that number (27%) believe there are secret voters for Biden.” It can be useful for Biden if so many of his supporters don’t believe the polls showing him way up—if it prompts them to turn out.

Rank 3

Last Week Down from last week #1

3. Arizona

When state politics aren’t helping, either.

Trump has been in poor shape in Arizona for months, even when the state Republican leadership was relatively popular. In June, a survey of Arizona from pollster OH Predictive Insights found Republican Gov. Doug Ducey to be just that, with a 59 percent approval rating against 37 percent disapproval. After a reopening of many indoor businesses in the state, though, followed by one of the sharpest per-capita increases in coronavirus cases in the nation, Ducey’s numbers have flipped. OH Predictive Insight’s July poll found that only 35 percent of Arizonans approved of Ducey’s performance versus 63 percent who disapproved. Voters in Sun Belt states that hastily reopened and are now facing sharp outbreaks—Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Texas—won’t have the opportunity this year to vote against their Republican governors, who come up in midterm cycles. If they want to express their anger in the voting booth, they’ll have to do so against some other Republican atop the ticket.

Rank 4

Last Week

4. Florida

Raise your hand if you’re excited to be outdoors in Jacksonville in August!

With great fanfare, the Republican Party announced in June that it would move the crowded portions of its convention—including the president’s nomination acceptance speech—to Jacksonville, Florida, after being unable to strike a deal with North Carolina’s incorrigible Democratic governor and his wussy concerns about “not dying.” Within a matter of days of the announcement, Florida became the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans are now scrambling to figure out how to keep the convention without being wildly irresponsible. Should they hold it in a crowded, indoor COVID trap or move it to what we’d call an actual simulation of hell were it not for the additional humidity: outdoors, in Florida, in August? Should they make Trump happy, or limit the crowds to preserve social distancing? There’s another group whose happiness they might want to take into consideration, too: Floridians. The Jacksonville area is a swingy part of Florida, and a June poll of Jacksonville voters found that 58 percent opposed holding the convention there.

Rank 5

Last Week

5. Michigan

New state motto: “The Polls LIE!”

We’ve already talked about post-2016 paranoia in Pennsylvania. But that’s nothing compared with the basket cases in Michigan. Tell a Michigan Democrat that Biden is on track to win it and they will punch you in the face. In 2016, Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell warned the indifferent Clinton campaign that the picture on the ground was much worse than the polls suggested. She was right then, and she’s preaching the same message now. This time, she’s joined in her warnings by freshman Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who recently told Politico straight-up that she didn’t believe the polls showing Biden comfortably ahead: that Trump voters were “fundamentally undercounted” in 2016 and that “the same thing is happening right now.” Again, there’s nothing harmful about this thinking as a public relations campaign. Fear is a much better motivator than confidence. But polling has adapted since Trump’s surprising (and absolutely razor-thin) Michigan win in 2016, and Biden’s current polling margin is larger than Clinton’s was. “Don’t believe the polls!” is a useful way of keeping voters energized; it’s also a useful way of saying that the national party needs to send more resources to your swingy congressional district. 

Rank 6

Last Week

6. New Hampshire

“Rain,” you say.

Trump narrowly lost New Hampshire in 2016, and the state remains on his exceedingly small list of targets to flip in 2020. New Hampshire is also one of the exceedingly small number of states to not be presently suffering a sharp rise in coronavirus cases. Trump’s advisers married those two data points with their urgent need to get the president out of the house and set a “comeback” rally of sorts following his poorly attended rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, weeks earlier. But the rally, scheduled for Portsmouth last weekend, was postponed at the last minute, with the president citing an incoming tropical storm. New Hampshire, though, wasn’t exactly in the path of the tropical storm. And officials “privately attributed” the postponement, as Politico reported, “to concerns about attendance.”

Rank 7

Last Week Down from last week #6

7. Georgia

Are Republicans trying to lose? Can we just ask?

Georgia is in play for Joe Biden. Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, was one of the earliest governors to reopen his state, a move that made him unpopular. He now remains unpopular and has a big ol’ COVID-19 outbreak on his hands. So what does this guy do next? We’ll tell you what he does next: He goes and bans cities and counties from implementing their own mandates to wear masks in public. Even next-door Alabama has a statewide mask mandate! The Surge doesn’t get it, any of it. Republicans are losing everywhere. There’s COVID-19 everywhere. There’s a debate coming to Congress next week about preventing the economy from going off a cliff as CARES Act provisions expire months out from an election, and Republican leaders in the White House and Congress are arguing against spending enough money to prevent that. Why!!! The Nov. 9, 2016, version of us is saying that this is all part of their confidential long game to win by an irritatingly close margin, and that we just can’t see it yet. But the naked eye suggests a committed and organizationwide GOP strategy of anti-winning.