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According to the FiveThirtyEight polling averages, the most competitive states Trump needs to push him over 270 electoral votes are:

Pennsylvania alone has 20 electoral votes and winning without it seems unlikely. Given his weak polling numbers, one would expect Trump to spend all of his time campaigning in these crucial states to try and improve his numbers right before the election.

Instead, with less than 100 hours to go, Trump is actually pulling his resources out of Florida and Both campaigns are flying directly to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan this Friday. This move makes no sense to me, seeing that the polling averages have Biden up by +8, +8.6 and +8.6 respectively. If the polls are actually correct, that seems like a insurmountable lead. In fact, the state of Minnesota has not even gone for the Republican since 1972 and would not be necessary for Trump to get to 270 electoral votes. The states of Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania are very necessary.

So why are both campaigns spending crucial resources in these supposedly non-competitive states in the days right before election?

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    A good answer here would use a historical analysis of which states a campaign visited versus which states actually turned out to be competitive on election day (not just in the opinion polls) in order to justify an argument that the campaign is either 1. Being logical and have access to data we don't or 2. Being illogical with their time. – SurpriseDog Oct 30 '20 at 17:03
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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… offers some good background on the most competitive states turning out to be much different than the forecasts by a group like FTE. – JeopardyTempest Oct 31 '20 at 8:48
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    I completely distrust polls which are so sure of themselves. Actually, I distrust every poll. – Eric Duminil Nov 1 '20 at 18:14
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    Looks like he should have stayed in AZ and PA. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan turned out to be a loss. – SurpriseDog Nov 5 '20 at 0:28
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    Turns out that Wisconsin was probably the tipping point, making campagning there not look so dumb after all. – James K Nov 20 '20 at 16:01
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Campaigns have their own internal polling and it can show different results than public polling. In 2016 the Trump campaign polling was far more accurate than many publicly available polls. Pulling out of Florida would indicate that either Trump believes it's a lock for him, or his efforts aren't working so focusing on a different state will be more impactful.

Clearly Trump and Biden believe that Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are in play. In 2016 the mid-west states going more for Trump was what cost Clinton the election, saying that they aren't worth it in this election seems naïve.

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    Can you source the 2016 internal Trump polling statement? If they had more accurate data it would be great to see what numbers they found and compare it to the public polls at the time. – Jontia Oct 30 '20 at 16:01
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    @Jontia Campaigns tend to keep their private internal polling private, at least until the elections are over. Private polling results were released by both parties in 2016, but after the election. These results showed that both parties had an inkling that Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin were strongly in play. The Clinton campaign ignored these internal results. The Trump campaign paid attention to and took advantage of these internal results. – David Hammen Oct 30 '20 at 16:26
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    Trump's internal polling may well have been more "accurate" because it was biased toward Republicans or Trump in particular (no surprise, with heavy partisans managing it), which happened to align with polling errors in larger polls. I would not assume that it reflects a better modeling strategy at all. – Obie 2.0 Oct 30 '20 at 21:20
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    @Obie2.0 if results "happen to align" with polling errors in a certain direction, especially over many polls, we may reasonably suspect systemic bias from the polls. – qwr Oct 31 '20 at 7:23
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    This answer would be greatly improved by including internal polling from Trump's campaign in 2016. – qwr Oct 31 '20 at 7:23
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The premise of the question is incorrect. Trump has not pulled his resources from Pennsylvania and Florida. From NBC News,

Trump will attempt to hold 11 rallies in several key states in the final 48 hours before Election Day, according to a campaign official. Trump is expected to spend the majority of his time in Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina — although a final schedule hasn’t been set. According to the campaign official, the strategy is to have him in as many places as possible.

Why Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan? Campaigns sometimes spend time in states they expect to lose, but perhaps closely, in the hope that their expectations are false. They did turn out to be false in 2016. Another reason is to get the opposing campaign waste time in places they shouldn't do so. This is particularly important in the current election because Donald Trump is campaigning personally on a very demanding schedule while Joseph Biden is being much more cautious with his time.

More importantly, Minnesota was very close in the 2016 election, with a thin 1.5% margin for Hilary Clinton over Donald Trump. More important yet, the northern part of Minnesota that used to be strongly Democratic has become strongly Republican. Look at where Trump is holding his rallies in Minnesota. Many of them are in sparsely populated northern Minnesota, an area where many feel the Democratic Party has abandoned them. Northern Minnesota's economy depends on logging and mining, neither of which is strongly supported by the Democratic Party.

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  • fivethirtyeight.com/features/… here is a source to include in your answer. Please source your claims. – qwr Oct 31 '20 at 7:12
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    By "Joseph Biden is being much more cautious with his time" do you mean that the campaign is being more tactical? Either way, the Biden campaign seems to be better funded and so money shouldn't be a constraint. – AES Oct 31 '20 at 12:12
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I actually think this is a reasonable strategy.

The key thing to get from the fivethirtyeight predictions is that, this close to the election, if the polls are accurate then Trump has no chance. The reason they actually give him a 10% chance is to reflect the possibility that polls are not accurate.

Realistically, in order for Trump to be able to win from this position he needs the polls to be out by at least 3-4%. So it makes sense to assume that is the case - if it isn't, no amount of strategy will make a difference.

But in that scenario, Arizona and Florida (and North Carolina) are no longer marginal Biden states that Trump needs to win. They would be marginal Trump states which still aren't enough for him to win. He would still need at least one more state, which could plausibly be Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin or Minnesota (Nevada is closer in the polls than some of these but wouldn't be enough on its own). So it might make sense to diversify rather than putting all his eggs in Pennsylvania.

Incidentally, although Minnesota has the longest streak of Democratic voting in presidential elections of any state, that is rather misleading; one of the main reasons it has this record is that it was Walter Mondale's home state (and the only state he carried as Democratic candidate in 1984).

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    Might be worth four or five more words at the end, if you're going to bring that up (as many people on this site weren't alive in 1984 to know what the significance of it being Walter Mondale's home state was - i.e., that he lost in 1984 only winning Minnesota, his home state, and thus no other state could possibly have as long a streak.) – Joe Nov 1 '20 at 3:05
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    @joe DC also voted for Mondale and has a longer Democrat streak. – Azor Ahai -him- Nov 1 '20 at 3:14
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    This. If the polls are correct, Trump is doomed -- so any campaign strategy has to work off the assumption they are not – waltzfordebs Nov 1 '20 at 11:31
  • @waltzfordebs: The polls are not accurate. Trump is so unusual that the polls don't work right. – Joshua Nov 2 '20 at 0:45
  • @AzorAhai--hehim True, but DC is not a state (and not competitive), so answer and comment are still accurate. – gerrit Nov 2 '20 at 11:40
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While we can't know for sure, there are plausible reasons for such a move.

At this stage of the campaign, there are very few undecided voters in this election cycle. So, the main focus of campaigns is on getting out the vote.

In Florida and Arizona, as shown in the Washington Post graphic below, early voting is already record high. So, a campaign can't make much of a difference in the turnout department by focusing on those states.

enter image description here

In contrast, turnout has been much lower in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. And, if these states were just abandoned entirely, voters inclined to vote for a candidate who didn't campaign there may infer that their candidate is not campaigning in their state because it is a lost cause and not end up voting at all. Yet, ultimately, the only poll that matters is the one tallied up from ballot boxes on election day.

And, because the three states are adjacent to each other, a candidate can campaign in all three of those states in a single day with only a bare minimum amount of time spend in transit rather than actual in campaign events.

And, while polling data shows Biden with a strong lead, there has been considerable scatter in the results of statewide polls from those states and everyone is painfully aware that in 2016, the polls dramatically overestimated the strength of support for Hillary Clinton relative to Donald Trump in those states.

Now, turnout has been even lower in Pennsylvania so far (one of the lowest in the country) and the polls are showing that the race in Pennsylvania is tighter than it is in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, and the polls got Pennsylvania badly wrong in 2016 as well. Surely, before Tuesday, the campaigns will focus on it as well. But, there is at least a credible reason to want to campaign in three states that aren't quite as critical in the same day, rather than losing a lot of scarce campaigning time left before the election in transit.

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  • Turnout was not lower in Minnesota: "Minnesota had the highest voter turnout in the nation, with approximately 75 percent of the state's eligible voters participating in the 2016 presidential election" Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. – Sudharsan Madhavan Nov 1 '20 at 17:03
  • "on election day" (and for weeks afterwards) – Valorum Nov 1 '20 at 20:52
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    I think your image cropped out the scale. – qwr Nov 2 '20 at 4:30
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One explanation I haven't seen discussed yet is the "shy voter" phenomenon, in which poll results are skewed by people who will not say who they are actually planning to vote for. I'll give both an anecdotal example of this, a study conducted, and explain how this leads up to candidate behaviors.

Anecdotes

Anecdotally, for journalistic purposes I've been following a variety of online political communities, and on the pro-Trump side it is more common to hear about stories of signs being stolen off one's yard, being threatened with job loss if you work for anti-Trump employers, and the like. Regardless of how true it is, there is a stronger perception in the Trump community that you will face personal consequences if you admit to supporting him, compared to the pro-Biden or anti-Trump community. This is in spite of the faction in the pro-Trump movement that is extremely "loud and proud" with the flags, motor parades, and flotillas.

Also anecdotally, I live in a deep blue area of a battleground state, and am personally third party. I've had door-knockers come by, and when I have told them that I'm voting third party they lay in on the "Trump is Hitler and you're basically voting for Hitler" narrative. From my personal engagement in anti-Trump groups it seems many in that faction really believe this. Its intimidating when someone's at your door saying this, and I am personally tempted to just say "you changed my mind to Biden" to avoid conflict.

What you must understand is, this is not about what is actually happening, or whose view is correct. What matters is how these perceptions drive voter behaviors, how these behaviors create discrepancies in poll numbers, and how any discrepancies can be detected and used as a competitive advantage.

Shy Voter Study

Now, for the studies, one of the more popular ones comes from Cloud Research.

The main finding here was that Republicans and independents were approximately 2x more likely (11.7% GOP and 10.5% Ind) to hide their affiliation than Democrats (5.4%), based on their methodology. I am also looking for a source on another study that looked for shy voters by asking "Who are you voting for?" along with "Who do you think your friends are voting for?"

When using these polling methodologies, MI, WI, and MN are much closer to parity for Trump, and if the Trump and Biden campaigns are using this methodology in their internal polling it would be a signal to come to states like MI, WI, and MN.

Implications

Depending on how the election turns out, I do think that we're going to see the need for changes in polling methodologies, as there are now methodologies that address the "shy voter" phenomenon and some of these have had a few election cycles to demonstrate effectiveness. What I also expect to see in the near future is more work on the question of how to engage people in polls, as polling was traditionally based on landline phone calls, and going forward we're seeing more people communicate over other channels.

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"Why" questions can only be answered fully by the parties in question themselves.Nonetheless we can guess Trump's campaign team has done internal polling and made the decision to view Minnesota as a battleground state. Trump regularly touts internal polling in his campaign rallies and material.

Recall Trump carried Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa in 2016 but lost Minnesota by less than 45,000 votes. 538 gave Minnesota in 2016 a 5% lead to Clinton while Clinton ended up winning by 1.5%. The campaign could reasonably view Minnesota as a battleground state, and there is evidence Minnesota is becoming more conservative, especially after 2016 and in formerly Democratic mining regions. Recent rioting and coronavirus restrictions have also been cited as possibly pushing Minneostans towards Trump. From Star Tribune: Twin Cities business owners devastated by riots find a sympathetic ear in Trump campaign

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I'd mostly agree with the previous answers, and would like to add one more factor.

The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/27/opinion/politics/trump-election-results-law.html) says the following:

"Typically, the popular vote determines which party's electors a state sends to Congress. But the Consistution also allows legislatures to ignore the vote and directly appoint electors... Republicans control most swing-state legislatures..."

(The examples given are: Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Minnesota is noted as having a Republican Senate, and a Democratic House.)

"Overriding the state's popular vote would be an extraordinary breach of democratic norms. But that hasn't stopped the Trump campaign from discussing the idea, according to the Atlantic."

One possible conclusion, is that the Trump and Biden campaigns know that if the popular vote is not a landslide-for-Biden in these swing states, the electoral college process can end up with the states' votes going to Trump. (And, this may happen, even if the state's popular votes would otherwise be "safely" for Biden.) In that case, Trump and Biden would have a stronger interest in decreasing and increasing, respectively, the margins in these states than might be supposed just on the basis of the popular vote.

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  • It is barely conceivable that Trump could be thinking this, but while, in a vacuum, a state could pass a law allowing the legislature to allocate delegates rather than the voters, no state in the U.S. has such a law, and enacting such a law after voters are cast, would be an invalid and unconstitutional ex post facto law and would not be effective to work as claimed. That is just another gaslighting misrepresentation. – ohwilleke Oct 31 '20 at 11:02
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    @ohwilleke Remember that there are ongoing battles about counting mail-in votes received after election day. If the result is ambiguous (goes for Trump on Election day, but swings to Biden after counting all the votes), there will be a lot of fighting, and deciding who is the winner may be up to the state legislatures. – jcaron Oct 31 '20 at 23:26
  • @jcaron The situation you describe is not ambiguous. Also, since election procedures are set by law and there is an ex post facto issue involved, the courts, not the state legislatures, would get involved. – ohwilleke Nov 2 '20 at 18:38
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One issue not mentioned here is that large areas of some states are actually in the media markets of major cities in neighboring states. Thus one reason for Trump's recent appearance in Omaha NE was to get on the Omaha TV stations' news broadcasts that are widely viewed throughout western Iowa.

(Yes, I'm aware of the other reason, which is that Nebraska splits some of its electoral college votes by congressional district and the district that includes Omaha is competitive.)

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Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are currently hotspots of the Coronavirus outbreak. Each have seen record hospitalizations (along with Ohio, another battleground state) in recent days.

Given the polling on the matter (where Trump disapproval is worse than his "general" disapproval rates), both candidates might see the situation as a unique opportunity to sway voters.

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    That doesn't make sense to justify campaigning in a state of the polling shows Biden solidly ahead. – qwr Oct 31 '20 at 18:38
  • @qwr - how so? At least naively, having acquaintances or relatives in the hospital from the virus seems like something more likely to change minds. In other states, the number of “swayable” voters is very low. Why campaign in states where (almost) everyone has already decided? – Telastyn Oct 31 '20 at 19:02

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