As the 2016 campaign winds down, Donald Trump’s travel schedule is becoming a double-edged sword for the GOP in down-ballot races. Consider this past Friday, October 21, and the impacts on Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.
On that day Trump held two rallies in Keystone State – one in the west and one in the east – with very different implications for Toomey. Pennsylvania, like other states with close senate fights, is full of different kinds of people and communities as defined by the American Communities Project. And the 2016 campaign is highlighting just how sharp those differences are.
Trump’s visit to the western side of the state – Johnstown in Cambria County, a Rural Middle America county – was likely a positive for Toomey. Western Pennsylvania is full of rural counties that favor Trump by about 5 points in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll. So Trump’s visit was a chance for the nominee to fire up his base and juice turnout.
Mouse over the map below to see the counties and types.
But Trump’s visit to the eastern side of the state – Newtown in Bucks County, an Exurb – was more problematic for Toomey. Bucks is one of the four big suburban/exurban counties around Philadelphia – also including Chester, Delaware and Montgomery where Trump is not popular. In those four counties Hillary Clinton leads Trump by 36 points in the NBC/WSJ/Marist poll. A Trump visit there only stirs up the voters who are against him.
Toomey has been caught is a difficult position since Trump became the nominee. The divided nature of his state means he could either a) support Trump and risk alienating the crucial Philadelphia suburbs, or, b) come out against Trump and risk angering what should be a base of support for him in the Republican west. How he handles the Republican nominee may well determine if he holds onto his seat.
But the Pennsylvania isn’t the only incumbent Republican in a tight race with this kind of problem.
Consider Sen. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, where the bottom half of the state is dominated by exurban counties, while the north is much more rural.
Or look at Sen. Richard Burr in North Carolina, where the Research Triangle and Charlotte areas are full of Big Cities, Urban Suburbs and Exurbs, which are all bad for Trump, while the Evangelical Hubs and Working Class Country counties to the east are good Trump territory.
There are similar divides for Sen. John McCain in Arizona and Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida.
The point here is that Donald Trump is a special kind of wild card this fall. His remarkably low support in urban places combined with his strength in rural areas has altered not only the presidential race, but the way the presidential race interacts with the down-ballot contests.
There are some, largely rural, places where Trump could be a real asset to down-ballot candidates. But at the same time, he could be a real impediment to those same candidates in other, more urban, locales.
If the Trump campaign were more closely aligned with the GOP – or if the candidate cared more deeply about the party – those calculations could be an important part of the Trump team’s scheduling. But without that more strategic approach, the impacts of Trump’s travel schedule down the stretch may be more scattershot, sometimes helping the party down-ballot and sometimes hurting.
This coming week, Trump is scheduled to hit Kinston, NC in rural Lenoir County, that’s likely a good turnout-juicing stop for him. But he’s also supposed to visit Raleigh, NC, by all accounts a place where his biggest impact will probably be stirring up anti-Trump sentiment.
This week he’s supposed to visit the Space Coast in Florida, around graying, less-densely-populated Brevard County. That’s a good area for him. But he’s also stopping in big, diverse, Miami-Dade. A Trump visit there is likely not going to help him much and could hurt Rubio.
Over the last few weeks pay attention not just what state Trump is visiting, but where in particular he is going. It may have a lot to do with what happens in the races that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate in January.