If U.S. President Donald Trump wins reelection in 2020, there will not be lots of people — unlike in 2016 — gasping with surprise at the outcome. But there are plenty of people who remain utterly bewildered by the prospect.
How after everything — abysmal polls, the 2018 midterm debacle, this week’s impeachment — is a second term even a possibility? The belief that the usual rules of politics simply do not apply to this president — whether because of political dark arts or some kind of cosmic destiny — is one of the only things that unites Trump loathers and Trump loyalists.
But there is no need to look for mystical explanations. There is a path to reelection for a president who never cracks 50 percent approval in polls that is entirely plausible. It’s not because the normal dynamics of politics do not apply to Trump, but because they do.
In recent days, the three of us have been making the rounds with White House and campaign officials, as well as senior Republicans aligned with them, asking a simple question: If Trump ends up celebrating the 2020 holidays with a second term in hand, how did it happen?
In 2016, Trump lost the national popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 3 million votes; his team expects this dynamic could happen again.
The answers are notable precisely because they are prosaic and straightforward, and involve strategic bets that are already plainly visible. The bets do not require fantastic leaps of logic or probability nor rank incompetence by whoever becomes the Democratic nominee. Trump strategists differ modestly on some details or use different language to say the same thing, but all describe a plan that rests on three pillars:
— Narrative: First, the campaign intends to repackage Trump, albeit within the narrow limits possible for a politician whose public image is already indelibly cast. The message: Sure, Trump is wild, but a disruptive character is precisely what’s needed to disrupt a failed status quo and force change. Second, the campaign will use its overwhelming financial advantage to repackage — i.e., viciously demolish — the public image of whoever becomes the Democratic nominee.
— Turnout: Trump aides assert they can outperform their polls in key states by 2 percentage points or more on the strength of a voter ID-mobilization-and-turnout operation that likely will be vastly better organized and staffed than what Democrats will be able to muster. Recall that in 2016, Trump lost the national popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 3 million votes; his team expects this dynamic could happen again, with an agitated and energized electorate it expects could grow by as much as 20 million people from the 138 million who turned out last time. But Trump’s team points to public polls that show he is competitive with prospective Democrats in the small number of states that will be essential to either side if the Electoral College landscape remains mostly as it was in 2016. Yes, Trump’s divisive personality means that a lot more Democrats will turn out to vote against him. But that divisive personality — combined with a superior digital strategy and a more robust volunteer network — means that the ranks of Trump voters in key states could grow by even more.
— Minority voters: Really? Yes, really. As Alex Isenstadt and Maya King wrote in POLITICO last week, Trump will use highly targeted advertising in key states combined with the presidential podium to tout how the robust economy has helped African Americans. If the notion provokes eye rolls — how does someone despised by Democrats more than any president in generations expect to cut into Democrats’ most loyal constituency? — recall that this strategy does not need to work a lot to be pivotal at the margins.
Give the Trump strategists credit where it is due. Unaligned Republican operatives and even veteran Democrats say the strategy amounts to the most credible approach available given the challenge of electing a polarizing politician who will never exhibit restraint or discipline imposed by political handlers or anyone else. The strategy is not exotic, and in fact draws significantly from the reelection strategies used by George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012 — both presidents who also faced unpopular polls and a highly motivated opposition a year from their second-term victories.
But also give these Trump strategists skepticism where it is due. They are describing a narrow, kinda-makes-sense-if-things-break-their-way path to a second term that would be wide, in a roaring economy, if Trump were a more conventional president. (See POLITICO’s “ What if Trump weren’t nuts?” from last week). What they are describing also is a path that works only if the country has fundamentally the same character and mood as when Trump shocked the establishment of both parties in 2016.
Another possibility — suggested strongly by Democrats’ rout of Republicans in the 2018 midterms — is that the broader landscape of American politics has shifted decisively, in large measure because of revulsion by well-educated suburbanites, especially women, against Trump. If so, no amount of organization, money or strategic skill is likely to turn the tide.
What follows is more on each of these three pillars — along with some critical “yes, but” analysis to be considered before putting too much faith in the ebullient bluster of Trump and GOP operatives.
It takes a Trump
The narrative battles described by Trump operatives to modestly reframe the president’s image are already underway. A vivid example was the ad buy he purchased during this year’s World Series. “He’s no Mr. Nice Guy,” the narrator intoned, “but sometimes it takes a Donald Trump to change Washington.”
It is not an inconceivable image rehab, especially with the support of movement conservatives (many of whom were still watching Trump warily in 2016) and a strong economy. A poll last year by the Harris organization for the Harvard Center for American Political Studies asked people whether they agree or disagree with a series of statements. The second highest response, with 58 percent, is people who agree the president is “vulgar.” But the highest? That he is “a disruptor of conventional Washington, D.C. politics.”
Probably of greater importance will be the effort to define, in sharply negative terms, the Democratic nominee. Trump aides don’t disguise that they’d welcome an opponent like Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, who they can denounce as socialist or far too liberal. But they also maintain that Democratic positions generally, especially on climate change in industrial Midwest states, will give them plenty to work with on policy and personal grounds even if the nominee is a more centrist figure like former Vice President Joe Biden or South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
The past three presidents to get reelected were relentlessly disciplined in their campaign messaging. Trump aides know that’s too much to wish for.
The essential point isn’t the novelty of this strategy but its routine nature. Trump hopes to use his campaign’s enormous financial resources — his campaign has $83 million in cash on hand, and the Republican National Committee has $61 million in the bank compared to $8 million for the Democratic National Committee — to attack the Democratic nominee before he or she can replenish resources after a long nomination fight. That’s what Obama did to Mitt Romney in 2012.
Yes, but: There is a virtually endless list of rebuttal or qualifying points to the Trump argument. The two most important are related. Trump’s barrage of complaints about impeachment and his random insults of people like 16-year-old Greta Thunberg are always about what happens to be on his mind. Could any voter possibly believe that Trump is more concerned about his or her future than he is about himself? Even if you are a Trump supporter, can you answer in a crisp sentence, “If Trump gets a second term he will use it to accomplish BLANK?”
He has time to fill in that gap, especially at the upcoming State of the Union address. But the past three presidents to get reelected — Obama, Bush, and Bill Clinton — were relentlessly disciplined in their campaign messaging. Trump aides know that’s too much to wish for. Of a recent day when Trump tweeted a then-record 123 times, a veteran GOP strategist said, “That’s about 110 times too many.”
The organizational edge
Once again, Trump’s strategy is not about breaking precedent so much as exploiting advantages that have worked often for incumbent presidents. Incumbents usually lose when the economy is weak or they face ideological opposition from within their party — neither of which is true for him.
Time and money not spent fighting for the nomination is a big advantage — and it may not matter much that this advantage is offset by bleak national polls. The Trump team says in background interviews that it is making targeted efforts in 17 states, but a much smaller number will get the lion’s share of attention.
If the electoral map remains otherwise unchanged from 2016, Democrats will need to win back three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin — to take back the presidency.
Trump operatives do not deny that they are in rough shape with affluent suburban voters, who were once an essential part of the GOP coalition. But they say that in 2016, almost 40 percent of the eligible voting age population did not cast ballots, and they maintain this group gives Trump ample opportunity to grow his vote. Trump strategists maintain the broader map is changing only at the margins. They will fight to keep Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona in the GOP column and make noises about flipping some states that went Democratic last time, including Minnesota, New Mexico and New Hampshire. Notably, they regard Virginia, once a critical battleground, as strongly Democratic and probably out of reach.
The key in every competitive state is outperforming public polls on the combination of data and door-knocking. White House senior adviser Jared Kushner is immersed in the effort, along with campaign manager Brad Parscale.
RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said Democrats “are so far behind” at state-level organization “they’ll never catch up this election … even with all the outside money pouring in.”
“You can’t build a 2 million-person-strong volunteer base that’s well-versed on the apps and the technology and do the door-knocking in a month,” she added. “If you’re not in the states now, grooming those volunteers and engaging them and training them, it doesn’t just happen.”
Yes, but: The notion that Trump can energize new voters who didn’t come out for him in 2016 is speculative. The erosion — threatening to become a full collapse — of GOP support with suburban women is a demonstrated phenomenon, vividly on display in off-year elections in 2017, in the 2018 midterms that vaulted Nancy Pelosi back to the House speakership, and in off-year and special elections this year. Trump, meanwhile, is facing demoralized ranks among some establishment GOP figures in the states, who won’t be doing much to help his cause. It is far from clear the Trump loyalists who took their places are first-rate, and even in the best of circumstances, it is hard for either party to get previous nonvoters or infrequent voters to the polls.
In this case the Trump boasts about boosting his vote among African Americans and the yes-but are interwoven. He got 8 percent of the black vote in 2016. If he bumped that up to low double digits, the gains — small in absolute numbers but consequential in relative terms — could be decisive in a close state vote. African American and Hispanic unemployment numbers during Trump’s term have reached record lows. Polls have showed higher approval ratings for Trump among African American men than women, amid indications that men admire his strong personality but women recoil at his bullying demeanor.
At this point, the notion of Trump cutting into a Democratic stronghold constituency is intriguing but must be taken with a pinch of salt.
As for Hispanics, exit polls showed Trump basically performed the same as Romney did in 2012 — 1 point better, with 27 percent. Given Trump’s exploitation of the illegal immigration issue, with inflammatory rhetoric and detention policies, there’s scant evidence to support Trump advisers’ tepid predictions that they will grow this figure.
In sum, the Trump team can give cogent answers to the question — How will Trump win? — and they are faking it well (as skilled operatives usually do) if they don’t actually believe what they are saying. But there are too many imponderable assumptions embedded in those answers for anyone but Trump partisans to embrace them as fully credible.