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As Biden Eyes Expanded Electoral Map, Memories of 2016 Linger

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 10/25/2020 Sabrina Siddiqui, Ken Thomas
a close up of a sign © Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

WASHINGTON—In the final days before the election, Joe Biden holds significant advantages in polling and fundraising over President Trump along with myriad options for a party desperate not to repeat the mistakes of 2016 but also tantalized by a potential “blue wave.”

Mr. Biden’s campaign believes he is in a position to reclaim traditionally Democratic ground and expand the map, potentially running up the Electoral College score in purple and even red-leaning states.

But four-year-old ghosts linger: Hillary Clinton’s campaign, facing a similar set of choices, spent time and money targeting a range of states and ended up losing Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan to Mr. Trump by fewer than 80,000 votes combined.

With that as a backdrop, Mr. Biden’s team said its priority is finding the most efficient path to amassing enough electoral votes to claim victory in an election that has been defined by the coronavirus pandemic.

“At the end of the day, this is about 270” electoral votes, said John Anzalone, Mr. Biden’s pollster.

As Mr. Biden maintains a focus on winning back the states on the Great Lakes that flipped in Mr. Trump’s favor after twice backing President Obama, he is facing calls to devote more resources to Texas, an Electoral College behemoth that hasn’t backed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976.

“I’m looking for the Biden-Harris campaign to invest more in Texas,” said former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D., Texas) on a Thursday night conference call with the state Democratic Party. He added: “This state is theirs to lose.”

A Quinnipiac University survey of Texas released this week showed Messrs. Trump and Biden tied at 47% among likely voters. Trump campaign advisers have expressed little fear of losing the state.

Mr. Trump’s campaign has largely focused on defending the territory that delivered him 304 electoral votes in 2016, along with efforts to flip Nevada and Minnesota.

For Mr. Biden, an all-in strategy could carry risks.

Mrs. Clinton was criticized for not visiting Wisconsin in the general election, even as she campaigned during the final days of the race in Arizona, which Mr. Trump ended up winning. Some of her former aides later acknowledged they put too many resources in states that wound up not being competitive.

Mr. Trump’s team during the current campaign has frequently pointed to polling in 2016 that showed Mrs. Clinton leading in the final weeks and has noted that Mr. Trump was significantly outspent.

After Mr. Biden struggled to raise money during the early months of his campaign, he announced that he had brought in a record $383 million in September, bringing his totals during the past four months to more than $1 billion.

Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon said the campaign began October with $432 million in the bank, compared with $251.4 million for the Trump campaign.

That has led to a Democratic blanketing of television airwaves in the final weeks. From Sept. 29 through Oct. 19, Mr. Biden’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee spent $114.3 million on TV advertising nationwide, compared with $56.3 million for Mr. Trump and the Republican National Committee, data from ad-tracking company Kantar/CMAG show.

TV buys placed so far for the final two weeks of the campaign—reservations that can still be modified if the ads haven’t yet aired—show a more level playing field, including near parity in Arizona, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Democrats have current plans to spend more than Republicans in Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin, while the reverse is true for the parties in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and New Hampshire.

Mr. Biden’s campaign spent $2 million on television ads in Texas earlier this month and has buys in place to spend $3.6 million between Oct. 20 and the election, according to Kantar/CMAG. Mr. Trump’s campaign doesn’t currently have any ad buys in the state.

But some party strategists said Mr. Biden must secure Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin first to deny Mr. Trump a second term. The president can’t afford to lose all three of those states and still win re-election if the remainder of the 2016 map remains constant.

“Their No. 1 priority has to be making sure the ‘blue wall’ is locked down,” said Jim Messina, who served as manager for President Obama’s re-election campaign.

Mr. Trump’s campaign said the dynamics of the race could shift in Pennsylvania and the Midwestern battleground states following Thursday’s final debate, pointing to an online fundraising boost and what they said was an opening created by Mr. Biden’s comments on the future of the U.S. oil industry.

“It’s undeniable that the president is the candidate, we are the campaign, with momentum,” said Bill Stepien, the president’s campaign manager.

Mr. Trump, who was briefly sidelined from the campaign trail early this month following his coronavirus diagnosis, has returned to a packed travel schedule.

He has continued to hold large-scale rallies that have largely eschewed public-health guidelines and was scheduled to campaign in North Carolina, Ohio and New Hampshire over the weekend.

Mr. Biden, by contrast, has maintained a lighter in-person campaign schedule.

Mr. Biden didn’t hold any public events in the three days preceding the final debate, even as Mr. Trump held rallies in Arizona, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. On Friday, following the debate, Mr. Biden delivered a speech about the pandemic in his hometown of Wilmington, Del.

On Saturday, Mr. Biden was set to campaign in two bellwether counties in Pennsylvania: Bucks County, outside Philadelphia, and Luzerne County, near the former vice president’s boyhood home of Scranton.

The campaign also deployed Mr. Obama to two of the most-competitive states: Pennsylvania and Florida.

In addition to Texas, Mr. Biden’s campaign is eyeing a handful of traditional Republican states where Democrats have steadily gained ground, including Georgia and Arizona.

All three states have Republican incumbents locked in competitive Senate races, adding to their importance to the electoral map.

Mr. Biden has made one trip to Arizona during the campaign for the general election but has yet to campaign in Georgia—where he is scheduled to hold events Tuesday—or Texas. But Mr. Biden has made 10 trips to Pennsylvania, including Saturday’s visit, three trips to Michigan and two to Wisconsin since accepting the nomination in late August.

That has brought a sense of relief to Democrats in Lackawanna County, Pa., which Mrs. Clinton narrowly won in 2016 by about 3 percentage points after Mr. Obama’s 27-point victory there four years earlier.

“I think in 2016, we took our base for granted,” said Chris Patrick, the county’s Democratic chairman. “We didn’t work hard. We learned a lesson.”

Write to Sabrina Siddiqui at Sabrina.Siddiqui@wsj.com and Ken Thomas at ken.thomas@wsj.com

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