Reaching 270: Dispatches from the battleground states

Reaching 270: Dispatches from the battleground states


The pandemic sadly meant no trip to the US to help campaign in what has proven to be one of the most exciting and unpredictable elections in our lifetime. But that didn’t stop me from speaking to voters from across key battleground states to get a feel for what’s happening on the ground, what’s driving their voting decisions and whether they think Trump or Biden will win.

What’s a “battleground” state?

The nature of America’s electoral college system means that a candidate must secure a majority (270) of the electoral college’s 538 votes in order to win the presidency. Battleground states are those which don’t have a clear Republican or Democratic lean in an election and whose electoral college votes are critical to a candidate’s path to 270. With the majority of states requiring electors to award their votes based on who won the state’s popular vote, this leaves candidates fighting for every vote in these states – which is why they are often referred to as “battlegrounds.”

Five US elections have produced presidents that were electoral college winners but not popular vote winners. Two of these elections were as recent as 2000 and 2016, which produced the two most recent Republican presidents: George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

I spoke to voters in the battlegrounds of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia. Trump won all of these states in 2016, but the polls put all of these states in play to flip to Democratic support. Let’s travel through them:

Michigan (16 electoral votes)
Until 2016, Michigan was one of the “Blue Wall” states won by Democrats in every presidential election since 1992. Michigan was the closest contest in 2016, with Trump defeating Hillary Clinton by a margin of 0.23% (or just 10,723 votes). Several polls suggest Biden is ahead – a view echoed by Sara, a democratic voter who lives near Detroit. As to why she thinks Biden will win Michigan, Sara pointed to the fact that Trump has been bleeding support among white suburban women that turned out for him in 2016. She also said Biden’s association with President Obama will help bring minority voters to the polls in communities like Detroit and Flint, which saw an enthusiasm gap for Clinton in 2016 that led to decreased support and turnout.

Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes)
A Blue Wall state that went for Trump by fewer than 45,000 votes in 2016, many expect Pennsylvania to be the “tipping point” state this election cycle. Biden was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania and often speaks of his connection and affinity with the state, but is it translating into votes? Democratic voter Ellie from Pittsburgh says polls are pointing to a Biden win, but she sees a mixed bag of support on the ground. She is deeply concerned about the possibility of lawsuits and votes not being counted.

Voter suppression and confusion over states’ differing mail-in ballot rules have been major issues across the country. Most election laws – such as how an election is conducted, who is eligible to vote and how mail-in voting works – are determined by state government. Dozens of election-related cases have already been sent to state and federal courts and challenges to vote counting and the validity of ballots are expected to be sent to the courts after Election Day, which could delay results.

Ohio (18 electoral votes)
No Republican candidate has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio. Trump won the state by an impressive 8.13% in 2016, but recent polls have suggested the race is neck and neck. James, a 63-year-old city official from Northeast Ohio and registered Republican, early voted for a third party candidate in 2016 and did the same this year. Dissatisfied by Trump and Biden, James questioned whether these two are really the best America can do, pointing to Trump’s personality and handling of Covid-19 as well as Biden’s age and support for larger government and higher taxes. In his Republican-leaning area, James said the yard signs are about 50/50, but said many are not putting out signs or are even lying about their voting attentions.

As someone who voted against both candidates, James was clear about his hopes for a Trump or Biden presidency. He said if Trump wins, he hopes Trump becomes more human and restores America as a model example for the world. James says Biden will have a lot of work to do and hopes to see bipartisan efforts to bring the country together again after four years of division.

Karen, a lifelong Ohio Republican feels that both parties have changed over the years but says her decision to support Republican candidates this year is purely policy-driven and not about personalities. The economy is Karen’s top driver and like many of the Democrats I’ve spoken to, she laments the division and viciousness that exists both locally and nationally. And like James, she said many people aren’t talking about their political views to mitigate risking relationships. She hopes either a Trump or Biden presidency will show an ability and willingness to work for a common good and compromise, and fears civil unrest and policies that are too extreme in either direction.

But will Ohio flip blue? Karen doesn’t trust the polls but said, whilst the state has a history of voting Republican, it might be different this time. For James, his gut tells him Trump will win the state of Ohio, but Biden will win over the country.

North Carolina (15 electoral votes)
Carter and Ava are millennials living in Durham, North Carolina – a state which backed President Obama in 2008, but flipped back to the Republicans in 2012 and went to Trump in 2016.

Carter is a registered Independent but he is firmly behind Biden. He said he was sickened by how shamelessly Trump espouses divisive rhetoric and expressed hope that the Biden-Harris ticket will restore some dignity to the White House.

Carter cites healthcare as a key factor for his vote. He wants to see a public healthcare option, particularly being a grad student, he worries he may struggle to find a job in this uncertain economy. He said climate change is another reason why Carter feels strongly against Trump and noted that America needs a leader who is willing to use the power of science to guide policies and decisions at keeping our planet habitable.

Ava echoed Carter’s views but admitted she isn’t thrilled about Biden, waiting for the day when the President isn’t an older white male. But she was clear that America’s polarised two-party system and the issues she cares about – human rights, racial justice, reproductive rights and gun control – mean she has no choice but to vote for the Democratic nominee.

Both Carter and Ava said they rarely see Trump signs in their community, the largest metropolitan area of the state. But a 15-20 minute drive takes them through Trump country. They feel it’s too tough to gauge who will emerge victorious in their home state, but express confidence in a Biden win. Like Ellie in Pennsylvania, Ava is deeply worried about voter suppression, particularly in black communities.

Business owner Stephen, 35, lives in a rural area of North Carolina that strongly supported Trump in 2016. He is backing Trump this year and, just like Karen in Ohio, the economy is his major driver. A self-proclaimed fiscal conservative, Stephen supports the Republican Party’s stance on capitalism, smaller government and deregulation. But despite his support for Trump, he still fears continued economic downturn driven by Covid-19 and a rise in cases.

For Stephen, what he’s seeing on the ground points to a racial divide. He sees far more Trump signs in his rural area, but noted that many African-American businesses close to him have Biden signs. He has also encountered many voters who remain undecided and has spoken to some who have switched their support from Trump to Biden. Like many, his 2016 prediction casts a shadow but he still feels that Biden will win the presidency.

Georgia (16 electoral votes)
Typically considered a firmly Republican state, the fact that Georgia is even in play for Biden should be worrisome for Trump. The last Democrat to carry Georgia was Bill Clinton in 1992. But changing demographics and a considerable African-American population are driving a tight race.

James, Nadia and Renee are all 30-somethings living in Atlanta, but aren’t all on the same page politically.

James decided to cast an early vote for Trump. Despite some misgivings about his handling of the pandemic, James said Trump achieved a strong US economy before the pandemic, the lowest unemployment rate on record and placed three conservative justices on the Supreme Court. In his words, “he puts America first, which should be the first priority of anyone elected President” and once we have a vaccine, “President Trump is the right man to get our economy back on track.” James thinks the election will be close, but ultimately Trump will win Georgia and a second term. But like some of our Democrats, he thinks the election outcome could be litigated well past Election Day and ultimately end up at the Supreme Court.

Born in Brazil and raised in South Florida, Renee said the main reason driving her vote for Biden was being able to vote against Trump. She didn’t care who the Democratic nominee was – she said her vote is against “an awful human being and a detriment to our nation.” On the issues she hopes a Biden presidency will address, Renee lists campaign finance reform, climate change, criminal justice reform, changes to the Supreme Court, statehood for Washington DC and Puerto Rico, and gerrymandering.

Biden-backing Nadia fears a second Trump will bring the overturning of Roe v Wade (a landmark Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights), a slower economic recovery and an even more divided country. On why she’s voting for Biden, Nadia says: ”to help shape an America I can feel confident in, not one that leaves me in a constant state of concern for our future.”

Nadia and Renee recognise that their age, demographic and location position them to see more Biden/Harris signs, but note that sentiment shifts to Trump when travelling outside of Atlanta. Both think Biden will win regardless of the outcome in Georgia, but remain cautious after polls had Clinton winning in 2016. “I don’t want to get my hopes up like I did in 2016, only to spend the next four years devastated,” Nadia said.

What can we learn from these voters and why should you care?

Support for Trump seems to be driven by the economy rather than his personality, whereas support for Biden was driven by a variety of issues. While these voters represent a broad spectrum of views and values, they all share caution and uncertainty over who they think will win their state and ultimately take the presidency. They also point to increasing divisiveness in the US and concern over what the next four years will look like.

The upcoming US elections will be one of the most consequential elections to take place in any country in decades, with the outcome having significant repercussions around the world. Who will be the next US president will impact the UK on a range of key issues such as foreign policy, climate change and a US/UK trade deal.

To find out what the first 100 days of a Biden presidency or a second term for Trump could look like, join us on Tuesday 10 November at 4pm to hear from US strategists representing both parties.

Come fly with me

Come fly with me

Throughout COVID-19, Cavendish Advocacy has worked to support clients who operate in sectors that are amongst those hardest hit by the pandemic. This includes the travel industry.

The global disruption caused by COVID has wiped out the demand that typically exists amongst passengers to travel, and the job losses that have been experienced throughout the industry are deeply sad and well documented.

This damage has been exacerbated by the fact that the industry has continued to feel the effects of COVID long after other parts of the economy have had an opportunity to reopen. There has been no Government support for the travel or aviation industries (beyond those measures made available nationwide) whilst the ever changing system of travel corridors has proven to be a blunt instrument that has failed to stop the spread of COVID whilst artificially suppressing demand.

UK policy makers currently have the unenviable task of trying to determine how best to balance managing the virus, whilst enabling the economy to restart.  For the travel industry, the answer is testing at airports.

This week Heathrow Airport introduced a pilot scheme whereby passengers flying from Hong Kong will have the option of paying for a rapid COVID test before they check in and travel. The aim is to help people travelling to destinations where proof of a negative result is required on arrival, and ultimately end the need for passengers to quarantine.

The introduction of airport testing is an encouraging step in the right direction. However, the UK remains far behind other countries like Japan, France, Austria and Germany, all of whom are using testing at airports to revive their economies, maintain public health and restore confidence in travel.

The UK must seek to replicate this success, and Cavendish has engaged with the Department for Transport to drive forward this agenda, and to champion other key initiatives to support the travel industry. 

It has not always been an easy process. Civil servants have shown themselves willing to meet, especially where it will help them develop their own knowledge. However, throughout much of 2020, the DfT showed a distinct reluctance to engage at a political level. It later became apparent that this was partly due to frustration brought on by the frequent leaks which accompanied meetings between Government and industry.

This is understandable, but no less problematic. The Civil Service is ultimately constrained by the policies set by their political masters, and the unwillingness of a minister to engage limits the extent to which they can be supportive. It is especially unhelpful to a client, who can only watch as their industry is eaten alive by COVID. 

As public affairs professionals, we have been required to get around this by adopting less direct methods. This oftentimes means building support amongst backbench MPs willing to raise our concern for jobs with the Government, or approaching a different department where there may be a policy overlap.

In recent months, we have begun to see the Department for Transport adopt a new attitude towards engagement. There is a new Aviation Minister, and his appointment has been accompanied by a greater willingness to meet and discuss the challenges facing the travel industry.

This may seem like a small victory in the scheme of things, but I have previously worked for a minister. Their diaries are relentless, and securing a meeting is no small feat.

Certainly from my perspective, the experience has emphasized how important the attitude of the individual minster is to facilitating clear lines of communication between the Government and those industries seeking political support and guidance.

If a minister is unwilling to engage it can be like pushing against a brick wall. However, recent developments suggest that the aviation and travel industries now have a strong champion in Government (which is not always a given) and that they may soon be able to restart in a way that restores consumer confidence, and manages the risks of COVID, which although not unbeatable, will likely be with us for the long-haul.

If you are involved with the travel and aviation industry and would like to hear further details then please do not hesitate to get in contact with


Is this the storm before the calm: deal or no deal?

Is this the storm before the calm: deal or no deal?

Brexit impasse continues as the Prime Minister today confirmed that the UK must be prepared for no deal once the transition period ends on 31st December. This follows the UK Chief Negotiator David Frost’s tweets last night where he expressed disappointment in the EU Council’s conclusions, adding that he was surprised that the ‘EU is no longer committed to working intensively to reach a future partnership’.

In his remarks, the Prime Minister reaffirmed the UK’s desire for a Canada-style relationship but said the EU’s position following the summit appears to be in stark contrast to this ambition. He accused the EU of refusing to negotiate seriously over the last few months and in light of all this, has concluded that businesses, hauliers and travellers should prepare for no deal. 

The UK set a deadline of 15th October to decide whether to continue talks or walk away. The Prime Minister has said he is prepared to continue talking to the EU if they offer some ‘fundamental change of approach’ and declined to say whether the UK was willing to walk away now. But deadlines are fast approaching. Any draft agreement text must be ready by early November in order for the European Parliament to ratify any agreement by the end of the year. The EU’s Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier has echoed this saying that fresh intensive talks over the next two weeks should aim to reach a deal by the end of October.

Some hope for a deal remains. Not only has Boris Johnson stopped short of ruling out further talks, but the EU remains open to intensifying the negotiations. EU Commission Vice President, Maroš Šefčovič believes that whilst difficult, a deal remains possible and the Irish Taoiseach, Micheál Martin has suggested that a deal is still possible within the timeframe. The French Government has also expressed support for negotiations to continue into November if the deadlock continues and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel has warned that the EU must be more realistic in accepting the UK’s position.

But significant gaps remain on fisheries and state aid and the question is whether these can be narrowed in the coming days and weeks. Several Member States, including Belgium, France and Denmark have not given Michel Barnier and his negotiating team any flexibility on fisheries and the UK is adamant that it should have full sovereignty over its state aid regime. 

Alongside this, the Internal Market Bill continues to cause controversy with the EU having commenced legal action on the grounds of it violating the Withdrawal Agreement. This all heightens the prospects of a no deal come January 1st and in their written conclusions following European Council this week, the EU gave little away to suggest that they would be willing to compromise. Instead, Charles Michel, the European Council’s President said it was for the UK Government to make concessions, something Johnson may need to do to secure a much-needed political win.

Cavendish Advocacy will be holding a What Next: Future of Europe? towards the end of 2020. Please watch our website for further details.

Can Boris get his mojo back?

Can Boris get his mojo back?

The world may look unrecognizable from 2019, but Boris Johnson returned to some very familiar themes in his speech to Conservative Party Conference.

We had classics from the 2019 election campaign, including levelling up, delivering Brexit, global Britain, net zero, and his more recent, ubiquitous catch-phrase of Build Back Better (which had its own Build Back Greener spin off too).

There was also plenty of red meat for the Conservative Party faithful.  The PM spoke of saving the country from socialism, tackling “lefty human rights lawyers”, and ensuring that the UK remains competitive on tax and regulation.

In a typical year this would be standard fare at Conservative Party Conference. However, although it has been less than a year since his election victory, the PM addressed his troops as a much diminished figure.

Boris has always faced accusations that he was not serious enough to be Prime Minister, but the appeal of his personal brand was a key part in delivering electoral victory in 2019. He also enjoyed a great deal of public goodwill in the initial stages of the pandemic, particularly when he contracted the virus and was hospitalised.

However, in recent months the Government has often looked directionless, with a succession of missteps and U-turns – including the exam results fiasco and the delivery of Test and Trace. Meanwhile, he has been dogged by accusations that since his recovery from Covid he has failed to get a grip over his ministers – in particular those who might have an eye on his job.

The dictatorial approach taken by Government to social distancing measures (such as the 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants) has also led to significant frustration amongst his MPs, many of whom are desperate to reopen the economy and allow businesses to restart.

The discontent surrounding the PM has stood in sharp contrast to Chancellor of the Exchequer. Prior to Covid, Rishi Sunak was little known to the public, but is now generally perceived to be the most effective member of the Cabinet and the front runner to become the next leader of the Conservative Party. Many of the initiatives designed to protect or save the economy have been released with infographics baring his signature, not the PM’s

Boris’ speech to the party, and reemphasis on his optimistic vision of the UK set out in the General Election, was clearly designed to refute the perception that he has lost a step. The PM even addressed it directly:

I have read a lot of nonsense recently, about how my own bout of Covid has somehow robbed me of my mojo. And of course this is self-evident drivel, the kind of seditious propaganda that you would expect from people who don’t want this government to succeed.

This vision was reinforced by new spending pledges to deliver on his pre-Covid agenda (particularly around sustainability) and transform the UK into the Saudi Arabia of the renewable wind industry. He also reached into his toolkit of Churchillian phrases to inspire the troops:

I can tell you that your government is working night and day to repel this virus, and we will succeed, just as this country has seen off every alien invader for the last thousand years and we will succeed by collective effort.

Monday was an attempt by the PM to return to classic, optimistic Boris. However, there is no escaping the shadow of Covid, and some Conservative MPs have criticized the content of his speech as belonging to another time and place.

The Conservative Party has always been notoriously ruthless, and never shied away from regicide when needed. The parliamentary and grass roots parties demand effective leadership above all else. Their patience is not inexhaustible, and unless Boris can rediscover his mojo and find a path to reopen the economy, whilst managing the risks of Covid, there remain big questions about whether he will address conference as Leader of the Conservative Party in 2021.


Party Conference Fringe Events

The Cavendish Advocacy and BECG teams may have missed out on the opportunity to spend three days in a conference centre, drinking warm white wine, but our fringe event programme was one of the most prominent at the conference – and tied into the key themes of Boris’ speech.

We looked closely at some of the key policy issues facing the UK, ranging from the US-UK trade agreement to the rollout of EV infrastructure, and were attended by both high profile political speakers and representatives of industry. You may have seen our scoop that the Government is already in discussions on trade with allies of Joe Biden in case he is victorious in next month’s election – and there were plenty of other great discussions throughout the day.

If you did not have an opportunity to virtually attend, you can watch them now, by clicking on the button below.


  • Levelling-up in a Post-Covid World
  • US-UK Free Trade Agreement: The next step in the special relationship
  • Transport: an Electric Future
  • Planning for the Future: Will it get Britain Building?
  • America Decides: Countdown to the 2020 US Presidential Election
Closing the skills gap

Closing the skills gap

The Chancellor has previously admitted that, although the Government has taken unprecedented steps to support the economy during coronavirus, he cannot save every job.

The extent to which more could have been done will likely be debated for a very long time to come. However, the acknowledgement that there are (and will continue to be) significant job losses has been accompanied by a new program, designed to retrain those workers who have lost their jobs and redeploy them into new opportunities.

This program, whilst rolled out in response to coronavirus, has also been deployed with a secondary purpose. It is not enough to just help people to retrain to find new jobs, but they must also be equipped with the skills and qualifications which the employment market is sorely lacking: Namely in the STEM and vocational sectors.

Successive Governments and Parliaments have long talked a good game about the need to ensure that further education qualifications and apprenticeships are given parity of esteem with universities and academic routes.

However, this failure to achieve a significant shift in attitudes, or to deliver impactful reform is reflected by how the labour markets continues to suffer from major skills shortages, despite the fact that many of these skills shortage roles are very well remunerated.

One only needs to check the Migration Advisory Committee Skills Occupation Shortage list to understand how deep the skills deficit goes. It encompasses not only IT and engineering roles, but also those occupations which have so long been taken for granted.

One explanation for why so little effort has been made by politicians and policymakers to improve further education is that for many years STEM or vocational roles have long been filled by talent attracted to the UK from abroad, particularly from the EU. Free movement has allowed businesses a consistent pipeline of talent to skilled roles, whilst the domestic pool of talent has continued to age with not enough young people stepping into the gap as the next generation.

However, with the end of the Transition Period approaching many businesses are doubtful that they will be able to continue to access the skills they require. This has only increase the sense of urgency to develop a more sustainable pool of domestic talent.

To give the Government credit, T-levels has been introduced as a means to address these shortages and to improve the quality of further education courses. The Apprenticeship Levy was also introduced to better finance apprenticeship training, although this has had more mixed results.

These were steps in the right direction, and the program announced this week builds upon these efforts. The Lifetime Skills Guarantee introduced by the Prime Minister includes:

  • £1.5 billion in capital funding to upgrade and improve colleges across the country.
  • Adults without an A-Level or equivalent qualification will be offered a free, fully-funded college course.
  • Higher education loans will also be made more flexible, allowing adults and young people to space out their study across their lifetime.
  • Portable Apprenticeships which will see portable contracts being implemented, whereby an apprenticeship contract can be carried over to a new employer.

This is undoubtedly a significant package of investment, although many of the details remain yet to be clarified. It has also clearly been designed to provide flexibility for adults who need to retrain, rather than just focusing on students in full time education.

However, to deliver real results and close the skills deficit will take time and commitment by the Government. This cannot just be a stop gap or a knee jerk response to coronavirus. Instead it must help must pave the way for a real change in attitudes to vocational training, and ensure a sustainable pipeline of skilled workers who are equipped with the qualifications required to fill those roles created by the post-coronavirus recovery, and which are desperately needed by businesses in the longer term.

Getting back to ‘levelling up’

Getting back to ‘levelling up’

A key challenge for this Government is to competently handle the Covid-19 pandemic while not losing sight of the agenda it was elected to pursue.

The 2019 General Election victory was delivered through that historic puncturing of the “Red Wall” where areas that had suffered generations of decline were promised a break from that trajectory. The Government would Get Brexit Done, yes, but also to embark on radical “levelling up” initiative that would offer hope to these communities. To repeat thew 2019 result they need to deliver on this promise.

Last week we saw 40 Conservative MPs reflect the importance of this agenda by coming together to form the “Levelling Up Taskforce”.

The Taskforce

The group, led by former Osborne SpAd Neil O’Brien MP, wants to “champion ideas and boost Britain’s lagging areas”. Its members include some of the new Conservative ‘Red Wall’ 2019 intake but also seasoned parliamentarians such as former PPS to Theresa May Andrew Bowie and Andrew Griffith MP, who worked as a chief business adviser to Boris Johnson prior to the 2019 election.

This coalition of a broad range of MPs illustrates that the levelling up agenda isn’t just supported by those new northern Conservative MPs whose constituencies are set to benefit the most. Instead it has a wider purpose; to unite diverse sections of the party behind the idea that the difference in opportunity and prosperity for people in London and the South East versus the Midlands and the North needs to be addressed.

Their initial foray has been to publish the ‘Measuring Up for Levelling Up’ report. This sets the scene by analysing the stark material difference that exists between the seats that were gained in the 2019 election and the party’s usual heartlands: “Seats gained by the Conservatives in 2019 don’t just have lower earnings than the seats the party already held, but earnings 5% lower than seats held by Labour”.

The report notes that there has been a southerly shift in income and prosperity, especially since the 1970s and deindustrialisation, regardless of efforts to redistribute wealth. These MPs have identified “three key tests” to measure whether the Government are keeping true in action to their ‘levelling up’ mantra.  The bottom fifth and bottom half of local authorities” must see:

  1. A drop in unemployment
  2. A rise in their employment rates
  3. An increase in their residents’ earnings

They call for the Government to produce an annual report, set against the backdrop of these three tests to show their progress on the ‘levelling up’ of the country.

Just in time for the Autumn Budget and with not long to go until the Brexit transition period ends, this influential and well-coordinated group of MPs is now exerting pressure from their inception to ensure Number 10 remains committed to this agenda.

Strength in Numbers

More broadly this is another illustration that MPs have learned from the influence that the ERG managed to generate in the last Parliament.

In recent months we have seen:

  • The China Research Group – a grouping of Conservative MPs who are extremely cautious about the rise of China and want to directly influence how the UK responds to it. This grouping includes the former Deputy PM Damian Green.
  • The ‘Future of Aviation’ Group – bringing together MPs that have constituencies heavily dependent on travel who want to influence Government policy towards the aviation sector, especially in light of the impact of COVID19. This group is led by Crawley MP Henry Smith who has Gatwick Airport in his constituency.
  • The ‘Common Sense’ Group – MPs, many representing coastal communities, looking to influence the Government’s response to an increase in refugees crossing the English Channel.

It seems that the Conservative backbenches have concluded that they’re ‘better together’ and will have more influence on No10 as part of these blocs. With the Government’s bandwidth stretched beyond measure during the pandemic, this approach makes sense. Clearly, 40 MPs singing from the same hymn sheet at the same time and gaining traction in the press is more likely to get the Government’s attention than just a few ‘Red Wall’ 2019 intake MPs  espousing their views on their Twitter accounts.

We expect that the Levelling Up Taskforce is not the last group of Conservative MPs that we will see emerge over the next few years. What does remain to be seen though is if these new groupings will have as much influence in the coming months as the ERG managed to hold between 2016 to 2018.