Is Virginia actually in play for Trump?: From the Politics Desk

Win McNamee

Welcome to the online version of From the Politics Desk, an evening newsletter that brings you the NBC News Politics team’s latest reporting and analysis from the campaign trail, the White House and Capitol Hill.

In today’s edition, national political correspondent Steve Kornacki explores whether Virginia, which has drifted away from the GOP at the presidential level, could be competitive this fall. Plus, campaign embed Katherine Koretski and national political reporter Ben Kamisar lay out why Robert F. Kennedy Jr. likely won't be on next week's debate stage.

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Is Virginia actually in play for Trump?

By Steve Kornacki

There are several storylines of national significance in today’s Virginia primary. But when it comes to the presidential race this fall, the consensus view has been that the Old Dominion will be suspense-free.

The saga of Virginia’s shift from red redoubt to safely blue state is a familiar one, keyed by the Washington and Richmond suburbs and hastened by the emergence of Donald Trump. It’s looked like this:

And yet, even as Trump leads the GOP ticket once more, two recent polls from Fox News and Roanoke College found him tied in a head-to-head matchup with President Joe Biden in Virginia. When several third-party candidates were included, Biden pulled ahead by 1 point in Fox’s poll and 2 points in Roanoke’s.

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This is obviously a limited polling sample, and while the Trump campaign is making noise about attempting to put the state in play, it has yet to demonstrate that it will back that talk up with a full-throated push.

Still, if these early numbers showing a tight race persist, the Electoral College implications would be significant.

Currently, Trump’s clearest path to 270 electoral votes involves clawing back Georgia and Arizona and flipping Nevada — all states with diverse populations where Trump’s polling gains among nonwhite voters stand to boost him. Even if he picks up those three, though, he’d still likely need to win back one of the three Big Ten states Biden flipped in 2020 — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, states with higher concentrations of white voters. But if Trump won Virginia, he could take back the White House without any of those northern states.

Of course, that’s a very big if. The current polls paint a clear enough picture of why the state could be competitive. Biden’s job approval sits at 43% in the Fox poll and 35% in the Roanoke survey. And when respondents in the Roanoke poll were asked how they now view Trump’s four years as president, 44% rated them “mostly good,” compared with just 25% who said the same for Biden’s tenure.

The inroads Trump has made with nonwhite voters in national polling are also seen here. The Fox poll has him at 25% with Black voters, up from the 10% the 2020 Virginia exit poll pegged him at. The state also has a significant population of Latinos and Asian Americans.

But when the fall comes around, the picture could look different in Virginia. Trump himself remains enormously unpopular (a 55% unfavorable rating in the Fox poll).

And there’s a higher concentration of college degrees among the state’s population of white adults than the national average. Not only has this demographic group become increasingly Democratic in recent times, it has also been intensely anti-Trump, turning out at disproportionately high levels in nonpresidential elections, motivated by any and every chance to express displeasure with the former president.

It’s a trend that could help Biden outperform his polling numbers in a state like Virginia.

Why RFK Jr. likely won’t be joining Biden and Trump on next week’s debate stage

By Katherine Koretski and Ben Kamisar

As Biden and Trump prepare for their first one-on-one showdown in nearly four years next week, there’s one wild card they likely won’t have to take into account: a third candidate onstage.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. appears set to fall short of qualifying for the CNN-hosted debate when the deadline passes this week. He hasn’t yet hit the polling threshold of 15% in at least four approved national polls, having reached that mark in only three so far.

But more critically, Kennedy is almost assured to fall short of the network’s ballot access criteria because qualifying in enough states to win 270 electoral votes is a herculean task for a nonmajor-party candidate at this early point in the election calendar. And on top of that, Kennedy’s campaign hasn’t been submitting its ballot access petitions at the pace needed to secure ballot lines ahead of the June 20 deadline — though it’s making clear strides toward qualifying by the next debate in the fall.

That means Kennedy is almost certain to be watching from the sidelines as Biden and Trump debate next Thursday, depriving the independent of earned media and a chance to elevate his long-shot campaign. Instead, Kennedy appears poised to leverage his omission to argue the election is rigged against political outsiders. His campaign has booked $100,000 in national TV advertising on the day of the debate.

Kennedy faces an uphill battle in order to gain ballot access in all 50 states ahead of November, but at a campaign event in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this weekend, he said he’ll be on the ballot across the country “within four weeks.”

The independent candidate has already qualified to appear on the ballot in nine states, representing 139 electoral votes, according to NBC News analysis and interviews with state officials. His campaign says it has also gathered enough signatures to surpass the requirement laid out in CNN’s criteria, but in many cases the signatures haven’t been officially submitted for verification, a process that can take weeks (if not longer).

In some states, the windows to file those signatures aren’t even open yet. That’s why the debate window is closing on Kennedy, pending any last-minute legal action by state bureaucrats.

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