As we head into the final days of the presidential contest — a time when candidates generally race to make their best closing arguments to the voters — it is worth looking at how badly run the Trump campaign has been.
As Democratic consultants, we are glad that President Trump’s re-election effort has been so erratic and poorly managed. But we do worry that Trump’s weak campaign might lull Democrats into a false sense of security about where they stand with the American electorate.
In a typical presidential race, polls tighten near the end as undecided and previous unengaged voters finally begin to focus on the candidates and their policy differences. But this year, polls indicate that with each passing week, Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s lead has stayed consistent, or in some cases, appears even to be widening.
Given these dynamics, one would think that Trump and his campaign would be doing a better job leveraging the awesome power of the presidency to their advantage, particularly because of the historically wide ideological swim lane that Trump has created for himself.
This lane is much more forgiving than it has been for any other Republican presidential candidate in the modern era. Much of the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy, trade and fiscal spending is at odds with traditional conservative orthodoxy.
Trump headed into the final stretch with a much stronger playbook than any of his predecessors enjoyed. He had his rabidly loyal base and the broad support of nearly all Republicans in Congress. But time and time again, Trump failed to run the winning plays available to him.
It’s too late for Trump to change tactics now, but many of these plays would have been fairly easy to call:
1. Passing another stimulus package. Nothing pays quicker political dividends than doling out free money to voters in an election year. Trump should have been leading the charge for another stimulus package after the earlier one expired in July, twisting just enough Republican arms to get them to support Democrats’ proposals for a multitrillion-dollar stimulus package — perhaps even forcing them to go further, enabling him to claim that he was the true champion of the working class.
2. Saving the Dreamers. Trump likes to claim that he is the best president for Black Americans since Lincoln — an obvious falsehood — but generally speaking, the Black vote is still very Democratic. It’s a different story for the Hispanic vote, however. Democrats — and Biden — hold a significant advantage across the country with Latinos (though Biden has shown a slight weakness with this demographic), but conservative Catholic values, niche political agendas– e.g. Cuban-Americans and their stance on Cuba policy — and a variety of other factors make Latinos an attractive demographic to harvest votes for Trump, something George W. Bush did in 2000 and 2004.
If Trump had announced a path to citizenship for DACA recipients and Dreamers — something he could have sold to his base despite his hard line on immigration — he could have branded himself as the greatest President for Latino voters in history. Moreover, as newly minted citizens, many of these Latinos would likely feel a sense of loyalty to Trump, paying dividends to the Republican Party for years to come.
3. Wearing masks. Why has Trump waged a silly campaign against masks, for no obvious political benefit? By disdaining masks, seemingly on little more than aesthetic grounds, or some ill-defined pander to “liberty,” Trump did nothing but infuriate many voters — including independents — who felt he was acting irresponsibly and dangerously on coronavirus.
4. Unfocused attacks. Attacking Biden and Kamala Harris should have been Trump’s sole focus and priority, but his lack of discipline has allowed Biden to remain relatively unscathed, and he has seemed almost afraid at times to even mention the name Kamala. What’s more, the attacks he has leveled at Biden have been outrageous and have tended not to stick. We cannot keep up with each and every Trump attack, but the latest include Dr. Anthony Fauci, certain unnamed GOP senators, New York City and even “Borat” movie prankster Sacha Baron Cohen. Biden and Harris should have been his full-time focus.
5. Palace intrigue. The Trump 2020 campaign team has been chaotic. The President shuffled his most senior campaign team, reportedly created a culture of fear and infighting among his aides, according to reporting in Politico, and allowed his team to blow through most of the nearly $1.6 billion he has raised, leaving him starved for cash in the final stretch. GOP pollster Frank Luntz said that the Trump campaign focused on “the wrong issues,” the “wrong message”and committed in his eyes “campaign malpractice.
It appears now that Trump’s strategy boils down to hoping he can create enough chaos in key swing states by monkeying with the postal system and supporting state Republican officials intent on suppressing Democratic turnout so that the election result is so hotly contested at a state level that the national election must ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court, as it was in 2000. Which explains his eagerness to quickly place new Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the seat vacated by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
But that’s not much of a strategy. In fact, that’s more like a Hail Mary by a third-string quarterback from his own 1-yard line with less than a second left on the clock.
Donald Trump has never been one to resign himself to defeat — his brand is built on the idea of winning. And with all the peril that await him after he leaves the White House — financial and legal — we would have thought Trump would’ve run a much better re-election campaign.
Let’s hope Democrats don’t get complacent.