Donald Trump’s assessment of the Democratic primary and its implications for the general election has undergone several twists and turns as the contest has developed. He is currently said to fear Elizabeth Warren. “According to three people who have spoken to Trump about Warren over the past two months,” the Daily Beast reports, “the president has specifically highlighted what he views as her surprising political and populist talents during the Democratic primary, and has told multiple advisers and associates that he hears she could be ‘tougher’ in a general election than many initially expected.”
Several reports in this vein have emerged from inside the White House since last fall. I have tried to piece them together and construct Trump’s general-election model. The pattern appears to be as follows: Trump considers the strongest candidate to be the one who is being talked about positively on television at any given moment.
In early January, Trump viewed Warren — who was then slumping in the polls — as “easy to beat,” dismissed Bernie Sanders as too old, believed Cory Booker “probably wouldn’t end up running,” and Kamala Harris was not “on his radar yet,” Politico reported. When Harris announced her candidacy, drawing a large crowd with good visuals, Trump was impressed.
In March, Trump “seemed to indicate to some of his confidants that he is concerned about the prospect of facing Biden.” In April, Trump expressed “begrudging respect for his political acumen,” reported the Daily Beast, noting that the president has cited Sanders’s “working-class support” and “populist appeal.” In May, Trump’s campaign had “profound anxieties about Joe Biden.”
So Trump calculates that his strongest opponent is either a centrist who can win the middle or a populist who can excite the base or an inspirational personality, that candidates who are rising in primary polls must be dangerous, and that anybody who disappears from cable television that week would be easy to beat or is not going to run. The Trump strategy, in sum, is based on having the memory of a fruit fly.