Two Things the Trump Team is Sort of Getting Right
The Trump reelection campaign has a legitimately hard job. Their candidate, as the incumbent, is being blamed for multiple catastrophes – an economy with Great Depression-level numbers and a pandemic that is paralyzing the country while much of the rest of the world goes back to work and school. In terms of election fundamentals, these are not the sorts of conditions you want as a campaign team four months before an election.
And even given the difficulty of their situation, it would be hard to call this campaign a particularly well-oiled machine. The campaign manager just got demoted. The candidate is lurching from one theme to the next – from Confederate statues to Goya beans to boat parades – none of which seem likely to yield a trove of latent voter support. The latest campaign ad was a chaotic mess and was pulled when Linkin Park complained about a copyright infringement. And the campaign's central rationale seems to be to try to brand a moderate old white man from Scranton as some combination of Angela Davis, Jane Fonda, and Fidel Castro. At least so far, it's not connecting.
Yet the campaign, to my mind, is doing two particularly important things right, if not flawlessly. In particular:
Seeking to Reframe the Election
National elections, both in the US and elsewhere, tend to revolve around the economy, with incumbent parties given blame or credit for conditions of economic growth. However, as books by Lynn Vavreck and Austin Hart show, it's not automatic that the economy will be the thing voters think about when they cast a vote. These political scientists show that decisions by the presidential campaigns to emphasize or de-emphasize economic matters will affect how much voters consider the economy when casting a vote. Yes, it’s usually in one party’s interest to prime voters on the economy – the incumbent party when economic times are good and the out-party when times are bad – but this doesn’t always happen.
For example, in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, neither the George W. Bush nor the Al Gore campaign discussed the economy to a great extent, as neither campaign believed the strong economy would help their candidate. Instead, the campaigns sought to prime voters on issues related to Social Security and the welfare system, as well as scandal, with the Bush campaign seeking to tie Gore to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. As a result, the election outcome was not well tied to economic performance, and Gore substantially underperformed relative to the economy’s overall strengths.
The campaign can't cure the virus or convince people it's not important, but if that happens for other reasons, the campaign can be prepared to take advantage of it.
Relatedly, up until early 2020, the Trump campaign had been speaking extensively about the economy, which was enjoying record low unemployment and strong stock market performance, while the Biden campaign was focused largely on divisive and scandalous behavior by Trump, including the President's support for white nationalist protests. Since the pandemic outbreak, however, there has been something of a reversal. Biden is now talking a lot about the virus and the economy.
Trump, for his part, is trying to reframe the discussion. The campaign wants voters to be thinking about something other than the virus or the economy when they cast a vote. This is why Trump has fallen back on "culture war" issues like the burning of American flags, the toppling of statues, the destruction of the suburbs, crime, etc. – anything else. The effect is scattershot, but the issues he's describing aren't unrelated. They all tap into some older notions of white resentment – over declining moral values, declining property values, rising crime rates, and so forth. He's trying to activate the white working class voters he believes delivered him the White House four years ago.
Playing Like The Game Is Close
Another thing the Trump team is doing right is not scrambling its campaign strategy or messaging just because he's down by ten points. They're acting like it's a close contest. They're trying to pare off the small number of independents who don't necessarily like Trump, but are worried about the direction Democrats would take the country.
No, this doesn't ensure a victory by a long shot. But there's a certain fatalism built into this. Any world in which Trump wins is one in which the virus has subsided and the economy has recovered somewhat – maybe not enough for Trump to declare a victory over the virus, but at least not to appear overwhelmed by it. It is possible that this happens; we don't know what viral caseloads and deaths will look like in September and October. Current patterns don't bode well, but we really don't know.
If things recover somewhat, so could Trump's approval ratings and vote shares, at least to the point that puts him within striking distance of an Electoral College victory. And that's where his culture war appeals could end up making a difference.
Now, what would help this campaign strategy immensely is if, on the governing side, Trump were working to actually mitigate the virus through a coordinated national strategy of mask-wearing, surface-cleaning, contact-tracing, and so forth. You know, the things that other countries have done that are allowing their children to go back to school, their workers to go to work, their sports teams to play each other, etc. Trump's not doing that. Instead he's acting like the Covid-19 virus is an act of God that can be spun but not controlled, and will go away in its own time.
This is not good policymaking. But on the campaign side, preparing for a world in which the virus is in remission is the smart move. The campaign can't cure the virus or convince people it's not important, but if that happens for other reasons, the campaign can be prepared to take advantage of it.
Now, just because the Trump campaign is doing these particular things right doesn't mean he's on his way to a victory. If the fundamentals of the race remain as they are or worsen, which are distinct possibilities, odds are he loses substantially. But in terms of the things they actually have some control over, they're playing their hand reasonably well.