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Plus: Comparing today’s swing-state polls to this point in 2020.

By Marc Caputo for the Bulwark

IN HIS OFFICE AT DONALD TRUMP’S campaign headquarters, pollster Tony Fabrizio has three Post-it notes with one word each: Weak. Failed. Dishonest.

“Those are the three words we’re going to use every chance we get to define Joe Biden,” Fabrizio, a Trump campaign senior adviser, told a group of 300 donors this weekend.

With a reputation as an “attack specialist” who helped make the Willie Horton ad that wrecked Michael Dukakis in 1988 and who “swiftboated” John Kerry in 2004, Fabrizio’s aggressive framing of the race was utterly on brand.

What’s less known about Fabrizio is that, among political insiders, he has a reputation as a clear-eyed pessimist, one who won’t search for silver linings because he’s too concerned about the storm clouds. Yet despite the unprecedented challenges Trump faces—an embarrassing and time-consuming sex-scandal criminal trial; a massive cash disadvantage; a huge disparity in paid advertising; a small on-the-ground campaign footprint compared to Biden’s; and a corresponding drumbeat of negative coverage—Fabrizio on Saturday sounded uncharacteristically . . . optimistic.

And it all revolves around polls.

“We’re expanding the map,” Fabrizio told the donors at the Palm Beach Four Seasons hotel, ticking through three slides that compared Trump-Biden swing-state polling averages today with the same period six months out from Election Day in 2020. The averages, compiled by RealClearPolitics, were in the seven crucial swing states that will decide the election: Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

In all seven of them, Trump has an inside-the-error-margin lead over Biden. Fabrizio, one of the nation’s top pollsters, told the group that the public surveys largely track his own, according to attendees who relayed the comments made at the presentation.

Based on those polls, the Trump campaign estimates only Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are true tossups right now. As they see things, Trump would need to carry just one of those Rust Belt states to win the White House because he’s reasonably winning 268 Electoral College votes due to his advantages in Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, and North Carolina.

That scenario, called “The Current Reality,” was listed on one of three slides of possible Electoral College outcomes presented Saturday by Fabrizio. The first slide in the presentation, labeled “The Media’s Version,” showed the seven swing states up for grabs. The third, an “Expanded Reality” map, listed Minnesota and Virginia as possible Trump pickups, which Democrats call laughable and unrealistic. They’ve also disputed using RealClearPolitics polling averages because they sometimes contain Republican-skewed polls.

FABRIZIO MADE HIS PRESENTATION in tandem with co-campaign managers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, mutual friends of Fabrizio who had never worked together until this campaign. (LaCivita was part of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth squad with Fabrizio twenty years ago; Wiles joined Fabrizio in managing Rick Scott’s improbable Florida gubernatorial victory in 2010.)

The presentation from the campaign’s Big Three served as both a media-bashing pep talk and an ask-me-anything for donors (Wiles and LaCivita quickly beat an exit, leaving Fabrizio to answer most of the questions). Taken together, their remarks provide a window into the thinking of the top minds of Trump’s campaign—and they show a stark contrast with Biden’s more traditional campaign, which is loaded with money, brimming with staff, and constantly working to shape media narratives with press calls.

“I would not pay attention to polls or a . . . strategy based on what polls are doing. We believe that this race is going to be won on the ground in the states,” one of Biden’s deputy campaign managers, Quentin Fulks, told reporters Tuesday on a conference call in which the campaign unveiled a new $15 million ad buy criticizing Trump for opposing the popular Affordable Care Act.

According to AdImpact, a subscription service that tracks and analyzes advertising, Biden’s campaign and affiliated groups have spent more than $90 million on TV, compared with $60 million from Trump’s team, most of it focused on the primary. In the most recent campaign-finance reporting period, for March, Biden’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee spent and raised more than Trump and the Republican National Committee. Biden’s team also had $131 million banked, nearly double Trump’s amount.

Fulks faulted Trump for failing to reach out to moderate Republicans who supported his primary rival, Nikki Haley, and said “Trump is focused on his own campaign for revenge and retribution.”

Biden’s campaign also detailed the numerous battleground-state visits by Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and their spouses and contrasted those appearances with Trump, who is stuck in court for much of the week and spends at least one day golfing. And the Biden campaign boasted of having more than 400 staffers in 150 offices “across key states” with plans to add 100 more staffers and 50 more offices.

“The Trump campaign still has virtually no presence in most of the battleground states. If they decide to do any organizing work at all, they will almost certainly be forced to rely on expensive and last-minute tactics with folks who have never set foot in the communities in which they’re knocking doors,” said Dan Kanninen, the Biden campaign’s battleground states director.

LACIVITA DISPUTED THE NOTION that the Trump campaign needed to keep pace, saying that “we’re the only campaign for president that has built, tested, and implemented an actual grassroots operation this cycle this year that worked effectively. We stress-tested everything.”

During Saturday’s presentation, LaCivita drew attention to an NBC News report about how Biden’s campaign was scaling back the candidate’s speeches as part of a “less is more” strategy. LaCivita said it was a transparent attempt to minimize slip-ups by the 81-year-old Democrat.

“Their entire strategy is now built on saying less and doing less in order to protect their candidate from himself,” LaCivita said.

When he made those remarks Saturday, LaCivita paused for dramatic effect and gave a Bidenesque rhetorical stage direction: “Pause.”

The room erupted in laughter, a source said.

But hours later on Saturday night, Trump spoke to the crowd and compared the criminal prosecutions of him to “the Gestapo.” The remarks were leaked to the New York Times just in time to impact the discussion on the Sunday news shows.

Maybe the 77-year-old Trump should consider a less-is-more strategy, too?

THE POLLING OF THE TRUMP-BIDEN RACE is the inverse of early May 2020. Then, Trump was marginally trailing Biden in those seven swing states. (Ultimately, Biden would win six of the seven—all but North Carolina.) And back then, Fabrizio was privately fretting that Trump was losing the election as COVID swept the nation, killed and terrified Americans, and led to widespread shutdowns amid the president’s chaotic response.

“Tony’s usually the one guy in the room who’s the voice of real caution, so I guess I feel good about where we are. But if Tony’s optimistic, I’ll admit it’s kinda weird,” one Republican who has worked with him said.

Here’s the state of play now in the crucial swing states, compared to 2020, according to RealClearPolitics, the source that Fabrizio cited Saturday:

Nevada: Trump now leads by 4.5 percentage points. At this point in 2020, Nevada had no April or May polls. It had one poll from March, an Emerson survey, showing Biden up by 4 points. (In November 2020, Biden won Nevada by 2.4 points.)

Arizona: Trump now leads by 5.0 points. By this point in 2020, one poll, in April, showed Biden leading by 9 points—but the RCP running average by this point in 2020 had Biden up by 5.3 points. (Biden won Arizona by 0.3 points.)

Georgia: Trump now leads by 3.8 points. At this point in 2020, Georgia had no polls in April or May. A poll completed in early March from the University of Georgia showed Trump up by 8 points. (Biden won Georgia by less than 0.3 points.)

North Carolina: Trump now leads by 5.4 points. At this point in 2020, polling averages showed Trump up by less than a point. (Trump won North Carolina by 1.3 points.)

Michigan: Trump now leads by 1.2 points. At this point in 2020, Michigan had one recent poll, an April survey from Fox News, showing Biden leading by 8 points. (Biden won Michigan by 2.8 points.)

Wisconsin: Trump now leads by 1.8 points. In the first week of May 2020, a Wisconsin poll by Marquette University showed Biden leading by 3 points. (Biden won Wisconsin by 0.6 points.)

Pennsylvania: Trump now leads by 1.8 points. At this point in 2020, the RCP polling average showed Biden up by 4.5 points. (Biden won Pennsylvania by 1.2 points.)

Despite the relatively good polling for their guy, no one in Trump’s camp thinks the race is anywhere close to locked up. All the caveats of polls apply: they’re snapshots in time; they have margins of error; turnout matters; known unknowns can—and certainly will—happen. Privately, both sides are wondering what will happen if or when Trump is convicted in his New York City trial. Will Trump again violate his court-imposed gag order (he’s already done it ten times and been fined) and go to jail? What would happen then?

And the race will likely tighten and loosen. There’s evidence it’s happening now as Biden appears to close the gap with Trump, according to national polling from USA Today/Suffolk, I&I/TIPP, and New York Times/Siena.

But Fabrizio also dismissed the media coverage of those shifts because the movement is marginal.

“All of these reports they see on the surveys, when they move a point or two, they make a big deal out of it because it’s clickbait,” Fabrizio said. “But really, nothing really is changing.”

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