Earlier this month, several top Trump campaign advisers gathered for a virtual strategy session to address a political reality they could no longer ignore: The President was in serious trouble.
For weeks, the collective trauma of the coronavirus, the resulting recession and the simmering unrest over racism and police brutality had eroded Trump’s approval rating and given his presumptive Democratic opponent Joe Biden a sizeable early lead.
It was clear that a reset was in order.
But as dire as things seemed, there was also a sense of cool confidence that pervaded the meeting, according to two people who were aware of the discussion. With a touch of gallows humor, strategist David Bossie joked that at this point in 2016, Trump hadn’t even fired his then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. In other words, there was plenty of time for a turnaround.
The message that emerged from the meeting was simple — Trump needed to get back on the road and show voters the country is ready to reopen. The campaign settled on pushing a clear message of America’s comeback and distilled the idea into three words: “Renewing. Restoring. Rebuilding.” That means leaning hard into Trump’s economic track record, which polling shows remains his biggest strength among voters. The campaign will also take every opportunity to define Biden as weak, ineffectual and hiding in his basement.
On Saturday that new messaging will get a full roll out in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the President will hold his first rally in more than three months. The campaign has billed the event as a major extravaganza. Local officials and campaign aides claim more than 1 million people requested tickets and that 100,000 people are expected to show up to Tulsa’s BOK Arena, which has a capacity for just 20,000.
According to interviews with 15 Republicans, both inside and outside the campaign, Trump himself is driving the strategy of convincing Americans that it’s time to end the lockdowns and get the country moving again.
For the true believers among Trump’s team of advisers, Tulsa is seen as a cure-all for the campaign’s current woes, a chance for the President to model a return to normalcy and reposition himself as the once and future savior of the US economy.
“The rally is a great signal to the rest of the country that it’s time to get things moving again,” said Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s campaign communications director. “Americans will now see the contrast between the President’s record of accomplishment versus the history of failure Biden brings to the table.”
But to many Republicans, the rally is a sign of desperation and merely provides a temporary distraction from a litany of bad news. The intense focus the campaign has put on holding a rally in a deep red state illustrates what some Republicans outside the campaign worry is a failure to acknowledge the real trouble the President is in.
The event undoubtedly marks a pivotal moment for Trump’s reelection effort. In a matter of months, what looked to be a strong case for a second term has evaporated. The coronavirus has turned his biggest strength — a roaring economy — into the worst recession in more than a generation.
Though the political landscape has changed dramatically, many Republicans worry the campaign has not changed along with it. Some strategists associated with the campaign tell CNN they are frustrated that the new focus on “renewal” and “rebuilding” is not more clear, given the fact that the Trump team has had months to get used to the new political environment.
Meanwhile, poll after poll shows Trump’s approval numbers slipping, including in reliably red states. Trump’s campaign has had to spend millions of dollars in states he shouldn’t have to worry about, such as Ohio and Iowa. And recent polls show him losing to Biden in the crucial battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Michigan, both of which Trump won in 2016. There is an abiding fear among some Republicans that Trump’s path to an Electoral College victory has narrowed considerably in recent months and that a rally in Oklahoma will do nothing to change that.
But aides say Tulsa is about something far more important: giving Trump the adulation he craves and reenergizing him after weeks spent wallowing in sagging poll numbers and critical media coverage.
“I guarantee you after Saturday, if everything goes well, he’s going to be in a much better mood,” a Trump political adviser said. “He believes that he needs to be out there fighting and he feeds off the energy of the crowds.”
The path forward
Advisers tell CNN that the Tulsa rally is the first chance to put its vaunted campaign operation to the test. With an impressive war chest, and years’ of data collected from the President’s most loyal supporters attending his rallies, Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale and his team are preparing to deploy those tools to get every last Trump voter to the polls.
According to one Trump aide, Parscale has told people around him that the campaign has already identified two-thirds of the voters they need to win. Parscale remains close to Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who wields considerable power over the campaign. But recently, as his polling numbers have dipped, Trump has lashed out at Parscale, as CNN reported in April.
One Trump political adviser said the move last month to elevate former White House aide Bill Stepien to deputy campaign manager was designed to insulate Parscale from criticism. It’s also meant to ensure that “if we ever get to a point where Brad has to go,” the campaign will have a natural successor who is loyal to Kushner, the adviser said.
Regardless of who is running the campaign, numerous Republicans who spoke with CNN expressed concerns that Trump’s narrowing route to reelection largely hinges on developments out of his control, such as increased economic confidence and avoiding a spike in coronavirus cases. Almost none of what’s happened over the past month has played to Trump’s advantage, especially the protests that grew out of the death of George Floyd, who was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.
Rather than addressing these issues head on, the President’s apparent strategy has been almost to wish them away. The White House has downplayed the recent uptick in coronavirus cases and Trump’s response to the racial unrest roiling the country has been diffident at best and damaging at worst.
Aides have recently encouraged Trump to stop talking about race and focus more on his record on job creation. Few around him believe Trump is able to rise to the occasion the current moment calls for.
“We are beyond the point of looking presidential,” said one person involved with the campaign.
Still, while the Trump campaign may be floundering, it’s far from flailing. An incumbent president carries myriad advantages, and Trump has proven particularly resilient amidst an endless stream of controversy and crisis.
“Traditional rules of politics have never applied to Donald Trump. We’ll see if they do this time,” said a senior Iowa Republican official who speaks frequently to the President’s team. “Counting him out would be malpractice for Democrats.”
That point is clear inside the Biden campaign, which launched its first national advertising effort Friday in six battleground states that Trump carried. For now, Biden is on offense, but Biden aides are aware that the race is only dawning.
Counting on a ‘Great American Comeback’
Rather than force Trump to meet the moment and unite the country, the campaign is looking to target two specific voter groups: die-hard, largely rural supporters who failed to come out in the midterms to vote for Republicans, and white suburban moderates and independents who approve of Trump’s handling of the economy but remain unsure about supporting him in November.
It’s this second group that his team is hoping will be a receptive audience for a broad, positive message about reopening the country. Republican strategists who spoke to CNN say their research shows voters consistently give Trump his highest marks on the economy. Buoyed soon after by a better-than-expected jobs report for May, the campaign put $10 million behind a new TV ad touting “the great American comeback.” But that’s a risky bet for Trump, given that unemployment remains in double digits.
Scott Jennings, the former deputy White House political director under President George W. Bush, said Trump can still turn things around — particularly if the economy rebounds before November.
“The President has an opportunity to dig himself out of a hole,” said Jennings, a CNN contributor. “If it feels like he is presiding over an economic comeback, that is the issue on which people trust him the most.”
Perhaps most importantly, the very occurrence of the rally will be a core element of the President’s tribal, us-versus-them politics. While many of his critics have argued that holding a rally in the midst of the pandemic is a public-health risk, Trump can side with a rural and exurban base that has not faced the brunt of the economic consequences of a virus that has hit urban areas hardest.
“He can make the argument that rural communities shouldn’t have responded to Covid the same way Manhattan did,” said one Republican operative close to the White House. “That is why re-opening is key. He can tell them he pushed for that, he was working for them.”
It’s a theme the broader Trump team has been articulating. White House adviser Kellyanne Conway denounced “Covid-shaming” of Trump supporters on Fox News Wednesday, drawing a contrast with how the media treats those who did not wear masks or socially distance during the protests following Floyd’s death.
Marc Lotter, a former adviser to Vice President Mike Pence who now advises the campaign, cast it in patriotic terms.
“This is a country that was built on taking risk and conquering,” Lotter said in an interview last month with Spectrum News, a regional cable news network.
Trying to define Biden
One source of frustration among Trump’s political team has been the lack of focus on Biden, who many in the President’s orbit say is a weaker general-election candidate than Hillary Clinton was in 2016.
“It would be one thing if they could make this race all about Biden. That is something Trump can do very effectively. But unfortunately this race has nothing to do with Biden, it is all about Trump and that is why he is in trouble,” said the GOP operative who works with the Trump team.
Part of that effort to shift the focus includes a new push by the Trump campaign for more presidential debates. Former New York City mayor and Trump confidant Rudy Giuliani has been empowered by the campaign to make a pitch to the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. This push for more debates was first reported by Politico.
At one point the President considered boycotting the debates, but his thinking has changed. One person who talks to the President on a regular basis tells CNN that he is eager to debate Biden because he believes the former vice president has lost a step and that he can appear energetic by comparison. Trump, who just turned 74, is three-and-a-half years younger than Biden, who will turn 78 in November.
Biden’s absence from the campaign trail has helped the Democrat avoid scrutiny of both his positions and his fitness for office. But some Republicans think it’s also left Biden undefined in the minds of some voters, despite his decades in public office.
“Nobody can give you anything about Joe Biden,” said one GOP strategist. “He can be whatever we want to make him.”
But the President’s campaign sees the chance to define Biden on their terms slipping away, especially in the weeks after he secured the Democratic nomination when the country was preoccupied with the pandemic. That missed opportunity has caused Trump’s team to redouble its efforts to tag Biden with every unpopular view or idea from the Democratic party as it heads into the summer.
On Friday, Trump’s campaign launched a website called BarelyThereBiden.com that mocks the Democrat for his supposed “incoherence.”
“(Trump) is not the kind of candidate that can afford to run an undefined race,” said Jennings. “He’s got to run against a defined opponent.”