How Trump can win reelection: Focus on Democrats, not himself

How Trump can win reelection: Focus on Democrats, not himself
© Getty Images

To win reelection, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE must play out of character: Make this election about someone else, not himself.

With job approval ratings in the low 40s and more than two-thirds of voters saying America is on the wrong track, Trump will lose if Nov. 3 is all about him. He has to make it about Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida Supreme Court reinstates ban on curbside voting in Alabama MORE and Democrats.

“The president needs to flush Biden out of the pocket,” Neil Newhouse, a leading Republican pollster, told me. “He has to smoke him out every day between now and the election.”


This will entail personal attacks, dire warnings about America’s safety and security, trotting out Trump's standard charge that his opponent is crooked and corrupt. Biden will be depicted as a "deep state" insider mentally unfit for the White House. Trump will try to bait Biden into losing his cool in debates and other opportunities. And the president has made no secret that he'll play on racial tensions.

Republican strategists say they're counting on Senate Republican allies to rough up Biden with inquiries alleging illicit links between the former vice president and Ukrainians. Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Biden: Johnson should be 'ashamed' for suggesting family profited from their name Graham wants to review ActBlue's source of small-dollar contributions MORE (R-Wis.) has said that he expects his investigation will help Trump. A number of Republicans believe — and Democrats fear — that Attorney General William BarrBill BarrTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Steele dossier source insists he is not Russian agent: 'It's slander' Voting rights group files suit against Trump, administration officials alleging voter intimidation MORE may weigh in with pre-election charges against some Democrats tied to the investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign.

Much of this is not easy. To depict Biden as a Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden endorses Texas Democratic House candidate Julie Oliver Ocasio-Cortez rolls out Twitch channel to urge voting Calls grow for Democrats to ramp up spending in Texas MORE socialist, for example, is belied by Biden's record and reputation.

Sen. Harris may be a GOP target — but voters rarely are persuaded, one way or another, by the vice presidential candidate. Democratic attacks on the GOP’s Dan Quayle had no impact in 1988’s presidential election. One study suggests that choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate may have cost Republican John McCain some votes in 2008, but not nearly enough votes to make a difference.

The race issue — Harris's mother is from India, her father from Jamaica — has been a Trump calling card. He popularized the “birther issue” questioning Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama to campaign for Biden in Florida Jaime Harrison on Lindsey Graham postponing debate: 'He's on the verge of getting that one-way ticket back home' Quinnipiac poll reports Biden leading Trump by 8 points in Pennsylvania MORE's citizenship, for example. Now, the president is warning that Democrats will send low-income minorities into suburban neighborhoods.


Trump's discipline will be tested on whether he goes after Obama, his least-favorite politician but still America’s most popular political figure in most surveys. “It'd be a huge mistake to run against Obama,” says Newhouse. “This is a campaign against Biden as a creature of ‘The Swamp.’”

Trump faces special challenges on the economy — likely to remain stuck at around 10 percent real unemployment as the election nears — and on the pandemic.

Corey LewandowskiCorey R. LewandowskiSenate needs to confirm Judge Barrett before Election Day  The Memo: Biden landslide creeps into view The Hill's Campaign Report: Barrett hearings take center stage | Trump returns to campaign trail MORE, a top Trump political adviser, dismisses the impact of both: “Prior to the COVID virus, Donald Trump produced the hottest economy the world has ever seen. We're getting back to it.” As for the pandemic, he says the most important moves were Trump banning flights from China and holding the World Health Organization accountable, adding: “Even with the pandemic, the stock markets are reaching record highs.”

Although many economic and medical experts disagree, Trump will hammer home that he achieved historic success on the economy and that, on COVID-19, we can see light at the end of the tunnel.

This will be a tough sell, and there is broad consensus that Trump is unlikely to win the popular vote; he lost it by almost 3 million votes last time.

But several Republicans cite the analysis last year by the respected, nonpartisan David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, that Trump could lose the popular vote by as much as 5 million votes and still win the Electoral College. This is based on Democrats running up the vote tally without changing the Electoral count in states like California and maybe even carrying Michigan and Pennsylvania, with all else the same as in 2016. If Biden wins the popular vote by 3 points, a margin slightly higher than Clinton's, Wasserman says he’d be “genuinely torn on predicting an Electoral winner.”

Lewandowski predicts Trump will carry all of his 2016 states, including Michigan (which some Republicans say is being written off), and will add Minnesota and New Hampshire.

Money won't be a factor, as both sides are flush. The Trump campaign has an important advantage, however, in its more sophisticated digital operation to target selective battlegrounds.

One critical element of Trump’s strategy is to suppress the Democratic vote chiefly under the guise of alleged vote-by-mail fraud. A recent Marquette poll of Wisconsin voters found that 81 percent of those surveyed who intend to vote by mail prefer Biden, while 67 percent of those planning to vote in person prefer Trump.

Trump may have one other surprising ally: the news media, despite his complaints about “fake news.” His megaphone might be even louder in a virtual campaign, and you’d have to go back to Joe McCarthy in the 1950s to find a politician as skillful at dominating — and manipulating — news cycles.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News and a former reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. He hosts "2020 Politics War Room" with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.