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Can Trump pull off a Nixon-style victory in November?

Can Trump pull off a Nixon-style victory in November?
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Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election margin, at nearly 18 million votes, is the largest in American history. Nixon, a determined if uncharismatic man who was utterly rejected by the New York-Washington media elite and was passionately opposed by the activist left, would target his efforts at the “silent majority” of relatively non-political Americans and inflict a crushing defeat on George McGovern. Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump admin to announce coronavirus vaccine will be covered under Medicare, Medicaid: report Election officials say they're getting suspicious emails that may be part of malicious attack on voting: report McConnell tees up Trump judicial pick following Supreme Court vote MORE has it in mind to do the same.

But Trump is no Nixon. He has singularly failed to understand Nixon’s strategy and calculation — Trump doesn’t even know what Nixon meant by the “silent majority.” Both Trump and Nixon face/faced a divided country, extreme hostility from the media elites and were instinctively law and order proponents. But that’s where the similarities end.

Nixon was the sharpest practitioner of geopolitics who ever occupied the White House. Highly intelligent, relentlessly competitive and an excellent political strategist, Nixon was always thinking a dozen steps ahead on the chessboard, carefully planning his moves. Trump is a showman, impulsive and easily bored. Trump barely thinks about tomorrow — forget about long-term strategy.

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When he sought re-election, Nixon wanted to bury McGovern and the Democrats. Nixon was not going to make the mistake he made in 1968 of playing it safe and filibustering his way to what looked like a slam-dunk win but turned out to be a nail-biter (Sounds a bit like Biden, doesn’t it?). Trump’s re-election strategy is exceedingly narrow — scraping by with just 270 electoral votes while losing in the popular count is fine by him.

In the face of protests and controversy, Nixon was determined to seize the initiative and set the agenda. And, in line with his re-election strategy, he did so in the broadest possible way. Nixon would never have hunkered down in the White House basement, emerging for a lame photo-op, a few fiery tweets and appearances on a select set of TV shows where he expected easy treatment.

If Trump had more Nixon in him, he would have made a national address with a coherent message and might have turned the protests to his advantage. Instead, he has squandered that chance and let events take control rather than controlling events.

There is, nevertheless, room for at least part of the old Nixon playbook.

Consider that support for law enforcement has remained strong at 43 percent to 28 percent according to Morning Consult, with independents at 39 percent to 27 percent. Support for National Guard intervention to keep the peace is even stronger at 71 percent to 22 percent — with Democratic and independent support both over 60 percent. Even military intervention enjoys majority support at 58 percent, with independents at 52 percent.

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But much of the public also supports the protests. At 57 percent, support for the protests is 14 points higher than support for the police — with even 40 percent of Republicans supporting the protests. And the public does not trust Trump on this issue or on handling racial inequality. Trump’s approval on handling the protests is under water at only 32 percent approval (27 percent among independents). As to who can handle the issues better, Biden or Trump, Trump is down double digits across the board — except for the economy, where the two are tied.

While Trump is right that Americans do not want chaos in the cities, his reflexive demand for more stringent measures is only a half-measure in the view of the public. What the public wants is for the president to restore order and address the underlying issues at stake. This lack of leadership is a serious problem for Trump.

The Trump election strategy is built on three legs: economic performance, strong leadership and the view of Trump as a winner. For the past year, Trump has led in all three categories. But his leadership numbers have begun to fall.

According to YouGov polling, Trump’s advantage in the question of whether he is a strong or weak leader has dwindled to 50-50, after being positive for much of the year. If that number holds, just two of his three legs of support would remain, performance on the economy (approve 50 percent to 42 percent) and whether Trump will win in November (Yes: 44 percent; No: 37 percent). And, if voters start doubting Trump’s leadership, will they continue to think of him as a winner?

Trump has failed to understand that the silent majority is not just a bunch of hardhats who voted for him. The silent majority is really people who don’t protest, who are not really active in politics and don’t obsess over the cable news shows. The silent majority may lean left or may lean right (and they have mostly leaned right), but they are primarily in the middle. They are silent most of the year, but on Election Day they show up and make the final decision on who will run the country.

On Election Day 1972, the silent majority gave Nixon an historic victory. Trump’s risky narrowcasting strategy is not an appeal to the silent majority — and right now they are not on his side.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.