The Trump strategy: Dare the Democrats to win

The Trump strategy: Dare the Democrats to win
© Aaron Schwartz

Nobody is going to win the 2020 presidential election — somebody will lose. In today’s polarized political world, voters are no longer voting for candidates they like; they are voting against candidates they dislike. President TrumpDonald John TrumpMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Trump camp considering White House South Lawn for convention speech: reports Longtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary MORE’s reelection campaign is built on this dynamic. The 2020 election will be the most negative campaign in modern times, and the focus will be on the Democratic nominee.

The Trump campaign is not so much running to win; it is daring the Democrats to do what it takes to win. Trump is daring the Democrats to nominate a candidate acceptable to independent and swing voters. Trump is daring the Democrats to take palatable positions on the top issues for those independent and swing voters. It’s a shrewd strategy, placing the initiative on his opponents. 

Can Trump win by not losing? He doesn’t have much choice.


By any historical measure, Trump’s polling numbers are not strong. With the exception of the postinaugural bounce all presidents get, Trump has never averaged a net favorable approval rating. Even his most favorable poll, Rasmussen, has rarely put Trump above water. Trump has never led former vice president Joe BidenJoe BidenMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Hillicon Valley: NSA warns of new security threats | Teen accused of Twitter hack pleads not guilty | Experts warn of mail-in voting misinformation Biden offers well wishes to Lebanon after deadly explosion MORE in any hypothetical national ballot test. Trump has consistently lagged behind Biden in key swing states and must-win states such as Ohio and North Carolina. According to a poll from The Economist, a majority of the electorate doesn’t even want Trump to run for reelection (51 percent to 37 percent), with independents opposed 47 percent to 30 percent.

Also from The Economist, Trump polls negatively on all issues with the exception of the economy, where he rates a tie (44 percent approve, 44 percent disapprove) — and that is in the face of a nonstop economic expansion and record unemployment (the measure most voters consider when evaluating the economy). A Washington Post poll found similar results (46 percent approve, 47 percent disapprove).

But depending on the Democrats to fumble the election could still work, after all — it worked in 2016. The Economist has consistently shown Biden, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersLongtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary Hillicon Valley: NSA warns of new security threats | Teen accused of Twitter hack pleads not guilty | Experts warn of mail-in voting misinformation Schiff, Khanna call for free masks for all Americans in coronavirus aid package MORE (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenTrump says government to review 5M Kodak loan deal Michelle Obama supporters urge Biden to pick former first lady as running mate On The Money: Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions | Pandemic reveals flaws of unemployment insurance programs | Survey finds nearly one-third of rehired workers laid off again MORE (D-Mass.) with net disapproval ratings, particularly among independents. Independents give Biden a net disapproval: 30 percent approve to 47 percent disapprove; they rate Sanders 32 percent approve to 45 percent disapprove and Warren marginally better with 31 percent and 39 percent. Meanwhile, Trump sits at 37 percent approve to 50 percent disapprove with independents.

The bad ratings for the top Democrats are particularly ominous in that the real campaign has not even started. Neither Trump nor the vast field of Democratic hopefuls has really gone into serious campaign mode, attacking and defining their opponents — what negative attacks there have been thus far are mere pinpricks compared to what is sure to come. While Trump will be subject to attack himself, the question is, what more can really be said about him? Meanwhile, most of the top Democrats have gone through only a partial vetting at best.

In addition, the independent swing voters who will decide the election are an ideological problem for Warren and Sanders. The most recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times survey had respondents rate their own ideological identity on a scale of 0 (most liberal) to 100 (most conservative) and their perception of the identity of the candidates. Independents rated themselves slightly right of center at an average of 52. They rated Warren at 33 and Sanders at 28 — far left of themselves. Their ratings of Biden (41) and Trump (60) were much closer to their own identities.


When you combine the center-right ideological leaning of independents with the fact that of the 6.7 million third-party votes cast in 2016, the center-right candidates (Gary JohnsonGary Earl JohnsonState polling problematic — again Where Biden, Trump stand in key swing states Amash decides against Libertarian campaign for president MORE and Evan McMullin) received 5.2 million while the left (Jill Stein) received 1.5 million, it is clear that independent swing voters are ripe for a more centrist candidate, not a firebrand of the left.

Forcing the public to swallow a nominee far more liberal than the electorate is a dangerous game. Yet slowly but surely progressive Democrats and their allies in the media are moving toward Warren. Warren has been gaining in the polls and looks to definitively pass Sanders for second position in the field soon. If the Democrats do indeed select Warren as their nominee over Biden, they will undoubtedly be selecting a more difficult path to the White House.

Great news for Trump.

Trump is challenging the Democrats to beat him, and the Democrats may well fumble it yet again.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. He earned his PhD in public policy from University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711