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Last-minute ad buys signal Trump effort to find new path to 270 electoral votes

Republican presidential candidate DonaldTrump speaks during a campaign rally at Bayfront Park Amphitheater, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

With less than a week until Election Day and the presidential candidates’ potential paths to victory narrowing, where they are choosing to direct their limited resources can reveal a lot about their strategy.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both launching ad blitzes in several states where they have previously spent little or nothing in the general election race.

The Trump campaign has announced new ad buys for the final week in Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Mexico, Colorado, Maine, Wisconsin, and Virginia. The Clinton campaign is going up with ads in Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, and Virginia.

The candidates or their top surrogates also plan visits to most of these states in the next six days.

“Part of it for Trump is that he’s trying to find new paths to get to 270,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Mitt Romney and John McCain made similar overtures toward new states in the closing days of the 2012 and 2008 races.

“They’re hoping to get lucky on a state,” said Matt McDermott, a senior analyst at Whitman Insight Strategies, of the Trump campaign’s gameplan.

Most statistical models still have Clinton maintaining a solid hold on at least the 270 electoral votes she needs to win the presidency. The full impact of new questions about her emails is still not entirely clear, but several polls have indicated the developments have not had significant effect on her support.

Recent polls suggest the race is still in flux in several battleground states. In the last few days, the Real Clear Politics average has flipped Arizona, Nevada, and North Carolina in Trump’s favor, relying on a handful of new surveys that heavily favored Trump.

Polls released Wednesday reinforced Clinton’s lead in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where she is up by an average of five points.

“At this point, it’s hard to imagine her losing Wisconsin,” Skelley said.

Wisconsin-based Republican strategist Brian Fraley said the Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday is one of the state’s most reliable and it shows Clinton holding a 6-point lead despite a spate of bad news late last week.

“The MUSL poll is the gold standard for measuring voter attitudes in Wisconsin,” Fraley said. “They were in the field last Wednesday through this Monday, so their results which were released today include reactions to FBI Director Comey's letter from last Friday.”

Whether because of the latest FBI activity involving Clinton or because of Republicans reluctantly but predictably coming around the Trump, the race has tightened nationally in recent days. Models that put Trump’s chances of victory in single digits two weeks ago now have him pushing 30 percent.

Even if polls putting Trump ahead of Clinton in Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, and Nevada are accurate, that probably would not get Trump to 270, according to Skelley.

“He has to win a state that no one expects him to win at this point,” he said.

The Trump campaign is particularly pouring resources into rust belt states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania where they hope his anti-trade message will attract rural workers who have not voted in recent cycles.

But McDermott said the latest moves suggest a recognition by the Trump camp that they cannot win Pennsylvania.

“It’s pretty clear they’re looking for a plan B,” he said. “Do I think any of those are viable alternatives to Pennsylvania? No.”

According to the Washington Post, Trump advisers believe he has hidden pockets of support in Wisconsin, where he could outperform other recent GOP nominees among rural voters and enthusiasm for Clinton may be slipping in more liberal areas.

However, Fraley observed that Clinton has a much stronger turnout operation in Wisconsin, while Trump is dependent on the state and national Republican Party organizations to get his voters out. Trump faces a similar deficit in other states.

“Nationally, Trump has some momentum heading into this final week, but he's failed to put in the work on infrastructure,” he said. “The ground game is the difference-maker in close races. The race is closer now, but Trump lacks the field operation to bring home a win.”

Skelley noted that there are still significant percentages of undecided voters and third party voters in many of these polls who could break for either Clinton or Trump in the end. Nothing in the polling suggests either candidate has a large advantage with them, though.

Both campaigns are taking a fresh look at Virginia, where Clinton’s running mate has served as governor and senator and where she has never trailed Trump in any polls. Like Wisconsin, the state is believed by some to be home to a contingent of Trump-friendly voters who may not be counted by pollsters.

The Trump campaign has portrayed Clinton’s decision to dedicate resources to shoring up her lead in Colorado and New Mexico as a sign of weakness, and her lead in Colorado has definitely been shrinking. Skelley said Clinton may be playing defense, but she is doing it from a position of strength in many of these states.

“Are these panic-induced buys or are they just trying to make sure Trump doesn’t make any last-minute gains?... It’s tough to say just exactly what’s driving them,” he said.

McDermott said the Clinton buys do look like a defense mechanism, but that does not mean the states are truly competitive.

Democrats need turnout in urban areas, and a fresh round of ads can help with that, as will Clinton’s planned visits to Detroit and Pittsburgh. McDermott noted that President Obama held last-minute rallies in Philadelphia and Milwaukee in 2012 for the same reason.

“They don’t want to take anything for granted,” he said.

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