Can Trump Win? Yes. But the Path Is Narrow and Difficult.


President Trump’s victory in 2016 is remembered for defying polls and stunning Democrats. But in many ways, it was not a surprise.

He prevailed with a piercing outsider message on jobs, immigration, China and trade. He restrained himself on Twitter in the final weeks while portraying his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as hostile to the economically disenfranchised blue-collar voters flocking to his rallies. His campaign worked systematically to drive up margins of white voters in battleground states that Democrats had largely taken for granted.

Mr. Trump’s obstacles are considerably higher this time. He is an unpopular incumbent in the midst of a pandemic and an economic decline. He is facing a much different opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has carefully studied mistakes Mrs. Clinton made in 2016.

Yet with two weeks until Election Day, Mr. Trump retains a narrow path to victory, in the view of many analysts, one that would require him to draw on his most effective tactics from 2016 and make fundamental changes in his campaign style to expand his appeal beyond his political base. He also needs Mr. Biden to make a mistake.

The clearest road for Mr. Trump is to hold one of the three states he snatched from Democrats in 2016 — Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin — as well as the rest of his winning electoral map, including Arizona and Florida, where Mr. Biden is now competitive. Polls indicate that is a daunting task, but not an impossible one, particularly if he succeeds again in driving up support among working-class voters, including in more rural areas he dominated in 2016, while holding down Mr. Biden’s support among nonwhite voters.

Still, interviews with 21 Republican and Democratic strategists, many of whom have worked for other presidential campaigns over the past 30 years, suggest that Mr. Trump will need some 11th-hour disruptions in the race. That might include a bad stumble by Mr. Biden in the debate on Thursday or on the trail; court rulings or Republican tactics that suppress the Democratic vote; and a G.O.P. ground game that turns out voters who may not have been counted by pollsters.

And Mr. Trump will need to bring discipline to the campaign trail that has so far eluded him, the strategists say. That will mean presenting a forceful and uncluttered appeal that he is better able than Mr. Biden to rebuild the economy, while trying yet again to draw a contrast between himself and an opponent he has sought to portray as ideologically too far to the left to run the nation.

In the end, most strategists said the single best hope for Mr. Trump was for Mr. Biden to do something to worry or alienate swing voters who Mr. Trump has already driven into the Democratic camp. And counting on your opponent to make a fatal mistake in the final days is rarely a good strategy.

Republicans have shown success in registering new voters in states like Florida and Pennsylvania. That could be important in building on a key part of the president’s 2016 strategy: turning out working-class white Americans who have not voted before.

“There are few days left to change the trajectory of the race,” said Sara Fagen, who was the White House political director for President George W. Bush. “Trump’s best chance at this point would be to dramatically boost turnout among non-college-educated white voters in the industrial Midwest.”

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Even optimistic Democrats (and most Democrats are optimistic) say this is a cause for concern.

“The Republicans have been laser-focused on growing the electorate this time,” said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 campaign for president. “The Republicans have a better operation on the ground than anything we’ve seen since 2004.’’

And it isn’t only white working-class voters. Polling suggests that Mr. Trump is doing as well or slightly better with Black and Latino voters in some states than he was in 2016 against Mrs. Clinton.

Mr. Biden is competitive in several states that Mr. Trump won in 2016: Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Some polls also show Mr. Biden with a significant lead in Florida, which has long been the Lucy-and-the-football state for Democratic presidential candidates.

But any road to re-election for Mr. Trump leads through Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. He is unlikely to win without holding on to at least one of those three 2016 upset states (and ideally two), though which ones offer him the best opportunity changes by the day.

Some analysts have suggested he pour resources into Wisconsin, which began in-person early voting on Tuesday. “It’s quite a challenge for him,” said Katherine J. Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It seems like Biden is really holding his own here.”

From there, he can turn to cobbling together the electoral votes he needs to reach 270 — by holding on to Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia and potentially grabbing Nevada, Minnesota or New Hampshire from the Democrats. More than anything, Mr. Trump cannot lose Florida.

Mr. Biden enjoys big leads in many national polls, but the race is tighter in many of these states. That may prove significant if some state polls are off, as they were in 2016, though pollsters say that is not likely. “Go back and look at October 2016,” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House. “This was the time of the panic over the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, when everyone knew that Trump was dead. I always said he was going to win.”

Mr. Trump has always counted on Mr. Biden’s having a mental lapse that would underscore the president’s contention that the former vice president has lost something on his fastball. Mr. Biden has provided plenty of missteps over the years to encourage that kind of hope. But that did not happen at the first debate, and Mr. Trump has been frustrated in his attempts to exploit Mr. Biden’s stumbles on the campaign trail.

There is one more debate and two more weeks of campaigning that will give Mr. Trump an opportunity to maintain pressure on his opponent — with attacks on the business dealings of his son Hunter Biden, for instance — in hopes of forcing a mistake that could bring back some swing voters whom Mr. Trump has lost.

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