With fewer than 100 days to go until Election Day, President Donald Trump and his chief political advisers are barely lifting a finger to expand his coalition of potential voters. Instead, they are desperately attempting to turn out Republicans, prevent his base from fracturing, and ward off conservative defections that would seal his fate as a self-described one-term “loser.”
It’s an election strategy that has left others in the Republican Party equal parts perplexed and paralyzed—fearful of the president’s wrath but also confused about why he isn’t making any sustained effort to expand his electoral coalition.
“The president has tremendous power in what to talk about. And he has kinda gotten off-track, in talking about what the media wants him to talk about,” said Barry Bennett, a Republican operative and lobbyist who served as a senior Trump adviser during the 2016 race. “He should be tweeting pictures of people going back to work… Let’s see some pictures of those people… The media is not gonna help him tell the good news. He’s gotta do it himself. And he should use his platform for that.”
Despite such consternation, and his own porous polling, Trump has shown no desire to change. Instead, he’s stubbornly let personal grievance dictate many of his public utterances. That mind-set was evident this weekend, when Trump authored a single tweet bashing three pillars of right-wing influence: guardians of former President Ronald Reagan’s legacy; the last Republican House speaker; and the most powerful conservative cable-news network.
“I thought, ‘Damn, he jammed a lot in there in one broadside,’” one GOP strategist lamented of the tweet. “The base is the piece he can control the most. But there are times where he sees his base as a larger portion of the Republican voting bloc than it is. There are a lot of gettable Republicans outside of the cultural issues that he plays on.”
Trump’s tweet may have been born out of a frustration that the Reagan Foundation, Paul Ryan, and Fox News weren’t being sufficiently subservient and appreciative of his presidency. But it also was a reflection of a broader anxiety within the upper echelons of Trumpworld that the president’s conservative base—which Trump and the party have long touted as rock-solid and fiercely loyal—may be starting to rupture amid the coronavirus pandemic, a weakened U.S. economy, and protest movements in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd. It is a concern that some close associates of the president have raised to him directly.
“I told him that he should believe the [public] polling, and that it shows that the way things are going, some of his base may abandon him by the election,” said a Republican who spoke to Trump about the issue earlier this month. “That is what the numbers are saying.”
This source added that the president shrugged off the suggestion and said that this person was being “ridiculous” for entertaining the notion that his base would ever fracture.
Part of Trump’s confidence in the endurance of his base is owed to the fact that he caters so much to it. In several key policy arenas, the president has jettisoned any and all pretense of reaching beyond Trump diehards. Earlier this year, he and his senior staff made it clear that they intended to run in part on criminal-justice reform, and to strafe Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, for his “tough on crime” past. It was an effort supplemented with a $10 million Super Bowl ad buy and aimed at depressing Biden’s Black voter turnout. But shortly after the Floyd killing, Trump and top officials were completely bored with even the idea of the most modest of police reforms and chose to fully embrace an iron-fisted posture.
“I get why he doesn’t like the Fox polling. But tweeting about that isn’t going to get you any votes.”
“I’m not sure there are many undecided people in this country, so it’s more a question of tending to your base and turning them out,” Bennett added. “I get why he doesn’t like the Fox polling. But tweeting about that isn’t going to get you any votes.”
On occasion, Trump and his team have tried at least symbolically to move beyond that base-first mind-set. In his 2016 campaign, he made repeated overtures to traditionally working class Democratic voters to back him on the basis of the trade deals that their own party had cut. After his election, he tried to recruit Democrats for his Cabinet, with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) meeting with him during the transition and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) oft-rumored for various posts. Trump even got West Virginia’s governor, Jim Justice, to swap parties—a feat the president managed to pull off again with Rep. Jeff Van Drew during the impeachment proceedings.
But those efforts have either fizzled or become less serious. Manchin never took the bait. And Gabbard not only kept her distance, she quickly endorsed Biden despite rampant speculation that she’d play a spoiler role this cycle.
On Dec. 19, 2019, the Trump campaign formally launched “Democrats for Trump” to, in its words, “engage disaffected Dems.” In the email announcing the group, then campaign manager Brad Parscale directed those interested to www.Democrats.DonaldJTrump.com.” Today, that page is nothing more than a sign-up form. There is not a single name of a Democrat supporting the president’s re-election, and the totality of the case made for Democrats to make the switch is a few lines bashing “Coastal elitists and left-wing radicals.”
Trump’s refusal to modify his base-only approach has had ramifications down the ballot. Senate Republicans, GOP operatives concede, could theoretically stand to benefit from presenting themselves to voters as a bulwark against a likely Biden presidency. But they’ve been remarkably reluctant to do so. And those strategists argue that it’s because they have concluded that their own fates are tied to the enthusiasm of Trump’s base.
“To the extent these [Senate] races remain a presidential referendum by proxy, Republicans carry all of Trump’s baggage in the eyes of his haters without necessarily generating the same enthusiasm or recognition among his supporters,” said Liam Donovan, a former aide at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Unless and until it becomes a choice between the candidates—or a check on full Democratic control—the Senate majority will only go as far as the president’s performance can carry it.”
But beyond the electoral calculations, there are mathematical ones. Even if Trump and congressional Republicans were to make overtures across party lines, it’s unclear if anyone would be receptive. The Daily Beast spent the weekend soliciting input from voters who backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 but were considering voting for Trump in 2020. Only a handful of individuals said they were in that camp.
“As godawful as Trump is as a human being and as much as I hate to see how he weakens our international standing in the world, I think he’s more likely to keep things manageable—within reason,” said Norm Bradshaw, of Seattle. “Because we do not need a cultural revolution. We need a business and government working together to ensure jobs, livelihoods, [and] security in the quickly automating society.”
Aaron McDowell, who resides in Sunnybrook, Pennsylvania, said, “I voted for Hillary Clinton because I thought it was time for a woman president. But now that’s not on the table.”
He explained, “So since I agree with Trump on the economy and he cut my taxes, I’m going with him because hopefully he’ll do it again.”