Trump revives 2016 playbook for Biden battle
President Trump is embracing a similar playbook to the one that guided him to a surprise victory in 2016, hoping the same strategy will win him reelection in November.
In both 2016 and the closing months of the 2020 campaign, his messaging has focused heavily on his base, he has made near-daily media appearances to drive the news cycle, he has used law and order and the fear of violence in cities to motivate voters, and he has accused his opponents of corruption.
The strategy proved successful four years ago, and he appears poised to rely on a comparable formula with just 70 days until Election Day. That approach was on full display Monday in a roughly hourlong speech in which Trump blasted the media, torched “weak” Democratic leaders for their handling of protesters and reiterated his belief that he can lose in November only if there’s a “rigged election,” even as allies acknowledge mail-in ballots are safe.
“The biggest parallel is in 2016 he kept the camera focused on him, and it’s no different this time around. He thinks winning the race means winning the news cycle,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who has worked on past Republican presidential campaigns.
Trump at times seems perpetually fixated on 2016. He frequently recounts to supporters how he watched the cable news broadcasts on the night of his victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He continues to attack his White House predecessor and regularly lobs unproven allegations that his 2016 campaign was spied on by the Obama administration.
Day One of the Republican National Convention showed how little things have changed for Trump in the past four years. He started the day with a lengthy campaign-style speech to delegates that was carried by cable news networks, reminiscent of the free coverage his rallies received in 2016.
The introductory video to Monday night’s convention proceedings featured a Jon Voight voiceover that hailed Trump as “a man who is not a politician.” One speaker later invoked Clinton without naming her, comparing a country under her leadership to the plot of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and claiming Americans would be “sold out to a … crooked Mrs. Potter with no hope of escape except death itself.”
The issues Trump is focusing on are also reminiscent of his 2016 White House bid.
In his acceptance speech four years ago, Trump dubbed himself “the law and order candidate.” As protests rage in cities across the country in response to the police killings of Black Americans, Trump has once again dug in on his support for law enforcement, tweeting last week, “I STAND FOR LAW AND ORDER AND I TOOK ACTION!”
There remain frequent pledges to end endless wars and get tough on allies and adversaries Trump argues have taken advantage of the U.S. for decades.
Perhaps most notably, Trump has revived his allegations that the political system is “rigged” against him and his supporters. The president referenced a “rigged system” five times in his 2016 acceptance speech, and he successfully branded Clinton as “crooked.”
This year, Trump has expanded the scope of his rhetoric to include the voting process itself.
“The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election,” Trump said Monday in the same speech in which he claimed Democrats were trying to use the coronavirus pandemic to “steal an election.”
Republicans see similarities between Trump’s insurgent 2016 campaign and how he is trying to target his core supporters this time around. But there are key differences in the contours of the 2020 race that make it a harder sell.
The president by early September 2016 had closed the polling gap on Clinton to roughly 3 percentage points, according to a RealClearPolitics average. By comparison, Trump has trailed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by at least 5 percentage points since early June, when the former vice president clinched the nomination.
“I think he’s trying to stay on the same playbook, but it’s a little different,” said John Pudner, who worked on campaigns for former Rep. Dave Brat (Va.) and other Republicans.
“The problem is it is easier to run as the outsider when you’re not the president,” said Pudner, now the executive director of Take Back Our Republic. “It’s just a little tougher message.”
Biden has been more difficult to brand than Clinton in part because he has higher favorability ratings among prospective voters.
The president’s own record after four years in office also complicates his attempt to recreate the 2016 campaign. Trump’s focus on crime in cities, pledges to draw down troops abroad and efforts to blame his predecessor for division in the country are undercut by the fact that urban unrest is taking place under his watch, that he has failed to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq or lay out a road map for doing so, and that he has failed to unite the country during his first term, even before the pandemic.
But Trump is hoping that the strength of his base, paired with the full backing of the GOP this time, can deliver him another four years in the White House.
Dan Eberhart, a Republican fundraiser, said he sees some parallels between Trump’s 2016 campaign and this year. He drew a distinction between Trump’s strategy of appealing to his hardcore supporters and the more tactical efforts of his campaign operation, which Eberhart likened to former President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection.
But Eberhart cautioned that Trump was previously unsuccessful in using law and order and fear as a closing message just two years ago, when Democrats reclaimed the House.
“It didn’t work in the midterm elections,” Eberhart said.