Donald Trump’s chance of victory in next week’s presidential election rests on a dwindling number of swing states as a spike in coronavirus cases across the Midwest dents his ratings in crucial battlegrounds, according to pollsters.
Mr Trump will continue his tour of battleground states on Thursday, with planned visits to Florida and North Carolina, before returning to the Midwest on Friday with campaign stops in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
But the president’s hopes of winning three swing states that propelled him to victory in 2016 — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — have taken a blow in recent weeks as a third surge of Covid-19 cases ravages the region and focuses voters’ attention on his administration’s handling of the pandemic.
Mr Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden has tried to cast the election as a referendum on the president and specifically his handling of Covid-19, which has claimed the lives of almost 220,000 Americans, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
“Joe Biden wanted to make this an election about the pandemic, whereas Donald Trump wanted to make it about his plans to reinvigorate the economy,” said Gary Langer, co-founder of polling company Langer Research Associates.
He added: “Now we have these seemingly uncontrolled outbreaks happening in swing states, there is no way people are going to focus on much else.”
A Financial Times analysis of polling data from RealClearPolitics shows that Mr Biden leads by 5.6 points in Pennsylvania, 6.8 points in Wisconsin, and 7.9 points in Michigan.
The surge of Covid-19 cases in the Midwest, where colder weather has forced people to spend more time indoors, means Mr Trump must win a clean sweep of battlegrounds in the sunbelt, such as Florida, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia — states where he still trails Mr Biden, albeit by much smaller margins. Even then, he would probably still need to also again win in either Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin.
FT analysis shows that in battlegrounds where the number of Covid-19 cases has risen more than 7 per cent in the past week, Mr Biden has an average polling lead of 4.3 points. Conversely, Mr Biden’s lead in states where the rise in cases is 6 per cent or less is just 1.4 points.
Mr Trump has argued that the severity of the pandemic is being overstated by Mr Biden and the media in an attempt to prevent him from winning re-election, whereas the Biden campaign has lambasted the president for prematurely declaring victory in the war on the virus.
Their differing approaches have been reflected in their campaigning styles, with Mr Trump giving tub-thumping speeches at packed rallies where many supporters do not wear masks or practice social distancing. Mr Biden has held far fewer events with smaller audiences.
At a rally in Bullhead City, Arizona, on Wednesday, the president said: “We have some incredible [Covid] numbers. You know mortality is way down and way better than Europe and other places. All sorts of things are happening with . . . therapies and therapeutics, cures,” he said.
However, Mr Trump’s claim that the country is returning to normality was dealt a blow on Wednesday, when the planned American college football match between Wisconsin and Nebraska on Saturday was cancelled following a Covid-19 outbreak in the Wisconsin team. The president has repeatedly claimed that the resumption of games in the Midwestern “Big Ten” conference was made possible by his handling of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the stock market, which Mr Trump uses as his main measure of economic success, dropped on Wednesday because of coronavirus concerns, with the benchmark S&P 500 index falling 3.5 per cent.
Pollsters say Mr Trump’s message is being undercut not so much by Mr Biden’s campaign or the economy but by voters’ real-world experience of the virus as it spreads rampantly in some parts of the country.
Polling by Change Research showed Mr Biden is winning over more Trump voters in areas where coronavirus cases are higher. For example, in states with relatively low Covid-19 numbers, Mr Biden is currently winning more than 4 per cent of white, college-educated women who voted for Mr Trump in 2016. But in states where numbers are high, that figure rises to 5.8 per cent.
Over the summer, Mr Trump was faring particularly badly in polling in Florida and Arizona but has since regained some ground in both states as cases have subsided.
“Covid is probably giving Mr Biden an extra 2 percentage points in the polls right now,” said Mike Greenfield, chief executive of Change Research. “If he wins the election by a big margin, coronavirus won’t be the reason he wins; but if he wins by just a few points, that will have been the thing that made the difference.”
The US reported 78,661 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, according to Covid Tracking Project data, about 4,400 shy of a single-day record set last Friday. A further 1,025 deaths were attributed to coronavirus, the third time this month the country has reported more than 1,000 fatalities in a single day.
The number of people currently in hospitals with coronavirus topped 45,000 for the first time since mid-August, when the sunbelt states bore the brunt of a summer surge.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington
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