Trump seeks split-screen moments in early primary states

President Trump has injected himself into the early primary states, staging rallies and shadowing Democrats as they campaign for votes in an effort to seize attention and better position himself for November.

The president’s prominence is unusual. Most incumbents have refrained from going full bore on the campaign trail while the opposing party is sorting out its own nominating process. But Trump, who feeds off the adulation at his jam-packed rallies, has made himself a central player in each of the early primary states.

Trump appeared in Iowa just days before the caucuses there, at a time when several of the candidates were constrained from campaigning because of the president’s impeachment trial. 

He then visited New Hampshire on the eve of its primary. Trump is expected to hold a rally in Nevada before the state’s caucuses on Feb. 22, swing through South Carolina before its Feb. 29 primary, and stop in Colorado Springs, Colo., before the state votes on Super Tuesday. 

White House officials, lawmakers and members of the president’s family have descended upon Iowa and New Hampshire on voting days to boost support for the president. Vice President Pence has crisscrossed the country to meet with voters at diners and speak at coalition events in early primary states, including a one-day visit to South Carolina that included an appearance at a Trump Victory fundraiser on Thursday.

The strategy has already produced results in the first two voting states. Trump earned 31,464 votes in Iowa and roughly 129,000 in New Hampshire, the most of any of the last four incumbents in those state primaries. The president’s allies also see potential longer-term benefits that could help Trump broaden the electoral map come November.

Trump won South Carolina and Iowa in the 2016 election, and has hopes of winning in New Hampshire and Nevada, where he lost in a relatively close result four years ago.

“We firmly believe that New Hampshire is a state that we can put in the president’s column in 2020,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told The Hill. “This is all about getting the Trump ground army ready for November.” 

Trump’s appearances in early primary states have allowed him to stifle any potential opposition from within the party and contrast himself with the Democratic presidential candidates at a time when they are also traversing the states. He often uses his campaign rallies to unload on policy positions held by Democrats on healthcare, immigration and other issues, and to criticize the individual Democratic candidates by name. 

Republican strategists say that the strategy is smart and comes at little cost to Trump, who is able to attract massive attention while sacrificing minimal time. 

“As the nation focuses on a particular Democratic contest, having his speech basically live for an hour and a half on cable inserts himself into that process,” said Doug Heye, former communications director of the Republican National Committee. “It’s a smart tactic. He’s essentially bracketing all of the Democrats.”

 Trump’s involvement has produced a split-screen effect that has become a hallmark of his presidency.

As Trump packed Southern New Hampshire University Arena on Monday night for a raucous rally, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) drew a formidable crowd of his own at the Whitemore Center Arena an hour away in Durham. The next morning, an image of Trump was front and center on the New Hampshire Union Leader.

While Democratic candidates eagerly watched results filter in on Tuesday night, Trump tweeted his observations from the White House, observing that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tom Steyer were struggling while Pete Buttigieg had a strong showing.

“Other than a candidate’s time and a campaign’s dollars, there is no more valuable commodity than dominating the headlines and winning the battle for earned media. By traveling to the early states with his counterprogramming messaging, Trump is denying the respective winner of their own uninterrupted victory lap news cycle,” said GOP strategist Colin Reed.

The strategy has allowed the president’s campaign apparatus to steadily rev up as he awaits the final verdict on who his opponent will be in November. The Democratic field further narrowed after Tuesday night’s contest in New Hampshire, with a trio of contenders in businessman Andrew Yang, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick dropping out.

The campaign has collected scores of voter data from rally attendees, allowing it to better target potential swing voters in areas where it will need strong turnout. Officials say Trump himself is the campaign’s most valuable asset, meaning if he can visit swing states early and often it will boost their chances in the general election.

Trump has also used his administration’s agenda to potentially tip the scales in his favor in battleground states. 

At his Iowa rally, he highlighted the recently brokered “phase one” trade agreement with China and passage of the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) in a bid to convince the state’s farmers that his administration has been a boon for them. 

Farmers were among those harmed by the Trump administration’s trade war with China, but the initial trade agreement secured a commitment from Beijing to ramp up purchases of American agricultural and other goods. 

“You’re going to have to get bigger tractors and a hell of a lot more land,” Trump told the crowd of supporters at his Jan. 30 rally in Des Moines. 

The administration has made a concentrated push to address the opioid crisis, an effort that will resonate in New Hampshire.

And Trump did not include funding for a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, yielding to the preference of local officials there after including funding for the site in each of his past three budgets.

During a Monday briefing, acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought pointed to the Yucca Mountain provision in the 2021 budget proposal as one that “was significant on [Trump’s] mind and ensuring that the commitments that he’s made continue to be reflected in the budget.” 

“There is the presence of a view that we need to end this belief that a permanent site is going to be housed at Yucca Mountain if the state where it exists is not supportive of it politically,” Vought told reporters.

Julia Manchester contributed.


Tags Andrew Yang Bernie Sanders Deval Patrick Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Michael Bennet Pete Buttigieg Tom Steyer

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