With the midterm elections now past, the political system is officially in a presidential cycle right now, leading up to what virtually everyone with a voice considers a highly significant contest. Assuming he is running for a second term, as he has consistently said he is, and assuming he hasn’t been removed from office or forced into a premature retirement by prosecutors and Congress, Donald Trump will need a reelection strategy. He has already announced a slogan (“Keep America Great”) that echoes his aspirational/nostalgic MAGA motto of 2016. And he has a nascent reelection campaign apparatus that looks a lot like his wild-and-woolly 2016 operation, as Gabriel Sherman reported in September:
His re-election effort is typically Trumpian: sprawling, disjointed, and bursting with confidence. In February, Trump announced that Brad Parscale, the digital guru with the Billy Gibbons beard who led his 2016 online strategy, would be his 2020 campaign manager. Meanwhile, Trump has been crisscrossing the country holding fund-raisers, building up a war chest of $88 million in his first 18 months. Many cast members from the original campaign are expected to reprise their starring roles, including Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, as well as Corey Lewandowski, David Bossie, and Kellyanne Conway. Even [Stephen] Bannon is starting to find his way back into Trump’s orbit after a bitter falling-out.
Sherman suggests that Trump 2020 will be roiled by rivalries involving its different GOP Establishment, Trump family, and right-wing “populist” spheres of influence. But whoever is in charge, and even if no one is in charge, the reelection effort needs a strategy. The weird thing is that it’s not clear there is one.
Just winging it might work fine if Trump was a popular president with a solid constituency for reelection. He is famously not very popular (unless you insist, like Trump, in only consulting Scott Rasmussen’s wild outlier polls), and after two years, it’s reasonably clear his unpopularity is extremely consistent (he’s never been above a 50 percent approval rating in anybody’s polls other than Rasmussen’s). And despite his claims of a midterm victory, based on making gains from an insanely skewed Senate landscape, his party just got spanked in the midterms.
So it’s pretty obvious Trump needs to either expand his base of support, or somehow get his existing base to the polls in greater numbers without mobilizing voters who really dislike him. As the team at FiveThirtyEight observed today, nothing Trump has ever done seems designed to expand his base. And this week’s bizarre Oval Office confrontation with Democratic congressional leaders, in which he promised to shut down the federal government if he doesn’t get his border wall money shows the midterms didn’t change Trump at all, at least so far:
[T]his is a complete play to the base, which Trump arguably already has locked up. If he’s looking to improve his fortunes, pursuing a government shutdown for something that the majority of Americans oppose doesn’t seem wise.
If Trump is incapable of executing a “pivot to the center,” or just doesn’t want to, then what are his other options? He sometimes seems to believe that conditions in the country (and the world) will, under his stewardship, become so wonderful that voters will keep him around almost against their own will. But after two years in which steadily improving economic indicators and the absence of any fresh international crises haven’t done him much good in the court of public opinion, it seems unlikely that good times will suddenly lift him into popularity. And it’s far more likely that he’ll be dealing with an economic downturn by 2020, while his approach to world affairs isn’t exactly designed to keep things calm, either.
The other distinctively Trumpian strategy might be simply to gamble that he can solidify and rev up his base to previously unimagined levels. He did, after all, win non-college-educated white voters by a record margin in 2016, as Ruy Teixeira noted:
In 2012, Obama lost whites without a college degree nationally by 25 points. Four years later, Clinton did 6 points worse, losing these voters by 31 points, with shifts against her in Rust Belt states generally double or more the national average.
Had Clinton hit the thresholds of support within this group that Obama did, she would have carried, with robust margins, the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, as well as (with narrower margins) Florida and Ohio. In fact, if Clinton could simply have reduced the shift toward Donald Trump among these voters by one-quarter, she would have won.
Can Trump go higher with this base demographic? Nobody knows for sure, but the GOP margin among non-college-educated white voters dropped to a Romney-like 24 points in 2018. And the other, overlapping group of intense GOP supporters, white Evangelicals, probably can’t get much Trumpier than they already are.
Trump’s own midterm strategy focused on base turnout, with some limited success. But in the end, the percentage of the 2018 electorate that strongly approved of Trump was outgunned by the percentage that strongly disapproved of him by a not-so-close 31/46 margin. It’s not going to be easy for the president to get his fans fired up and marching to the polls in a hate frenzy without helping Democrats do the same.
The silver lining for the Trump reelection campaign is that he faced most of these problems in 2016 and won anyway. And that example may indicate the real 2020 strategy for the president: fire up the base just enough to get within striking distance and hope for luck and a Democratic opponent with popularity problems as large as his own.
The luck part may be difficult to reduplicate. Is there some equivalent to the Comey letter that could benefit Trump at the last minute once again? Will Democrats again misjudge and underinvest in key states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which in effect let Trump draw an inside straight for an Electoral College win? And will Democrats be so overconfident that many of them won’t bother to vote while many others waste their votes on third and fourth parties?
The more you think it through, the likely Trump strategy will be to do everything imaginable to drive down the positive sentiments associated with their Democratic opponent, perhaps enlisting those hated godless liberal news media assets who are driven by “fairness” to reinforce negative narratives about the candidate they are presumed to favor. The virtual certainty of a Trump campaign that exceeds in sheer savagery anything this country has ever seen before should serve as a warning to Democrats about how they think about their own nominating process. I argued earlier this year that Democrats should look for an unbreakable nominee — one with no obvious vulnerabilities in age, background, ideology or character that an absolutely unprincipled Trump campaign might exploit to drag her or him down to his level of unpopularity. Breaking his opponent by any means necessary looks to be Trump’s only avenue for extending his unlikely and heinous hold on the presidency.