WASHINGTON – Buoyed by his impeachment acquittal and the muddled Democratic primary race, President Donald Trump and his campaign are turning to address his re-election bid’s greatest weaknesses with an aggressive, well-funded but uncertain effort to win back suburban voters turned off by his policies and behavior.
His campaign is aiming to regain voters in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, after losing many of them to Democrats in the 2018 midterms. Advisers hope to expand the electoral map for November by winning moderate-leaning states like Minnesota and New Hampshire. And the White House is gearing up to help with policy issues directed at swing states, such as the new trade deal with Mexico and Canada and paid family leave for federal workers.
Trump campaign officials are also stockpiling cash to help with these efforts, with $200 million in the bank now and fundraising continuing at a brisk pace. They have put up TV ads relatively early in the race, allocating $6 million for the final three months of 2019 to highlight a booming economy and low jobless numbers.
Among the goals is trying to appeal to black voters and suburban and upper-income white voters with ads such as a spot focusing on criminal justice reform that first aired during the Super Bowl and is continuing on cable channels with large female audiences, like Bravo and Lifetime.
Yet Trump’s messaging, like so much else about his approach to politics, is contradictory. For all the focus on appealing to moderates, the campaign is also engaging Trump’s hard-core supporters with Facebook ads warning of the danger of unauthorized “aliens” and their “invasion” of the U.S., and decrying “the impeachment hoax.”
Those inflammatory, targeted ads are ones that suburban voters may never see, a reflection of the campaign’s broad strategy: Keep his base energized and chip away at his problems in the suburbs and communities of color.
The challenge facing Trump’s advisers remains the same as it has been since 2017: Trump is among the most deeply divisive leaders in the nation’s history, whose conduct has helped accelerate a realignment of moderate suburban voters toward Democrats. These voters have been the cornerstone of Democrats’ electoral revival since 2016, helping them flip governorships and propelling their capture of the House.
Trump cannot win a second term without attracting more suburban and independent voters in a handful of states he carried in 2016, but he is averse to staying on script and delivering a consistent message aimed at moderate voters rather than his hard-core admirers, or his own need to get things off his chest. Trump’s advisers argue that the suburban voters who eschewed Republicans in the 2018 midterms will vote differently when Trump’s name is on the ballot.
“Suburban women is where he has a challenge,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.
“I think the biggest problem that he has with suburban women is the part that so many in his base like about him,” Cramer said. “His rhetoric, his punching down at his opponents. It’s so different than anything they’ve seen.”
Scott Reed, the top political adviser to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, nodded to the fleeting nature of Trump-era politics as he assessed the electoral landscape for the president. “Politics in Trumpville are great right now, but these days, a week feels like three months and we have a long way to go,” Reed said.
The GOP strategy ultimately depends on who his Democratic foe turns out to be. Trump faces an unknown in Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire former New York City mayor running a general election strategy, who is spending so much money that Trump’s advisers acknowledged that he cannot be ignored even if he loses the nomination.
With the Democrats enmeshed in the start of their primary season, Trump is beginning his own new phase: He has reasons to feel reassured about his prospects as he turns more fully to his re-election effort, and the apparatus of the White House and the party are more able to focus on winning him a second term.
Trump’s approval ratings have inched up and he’s now around where the last three incumbent presidents were at the start of their own successful re-elections. And the economy shows no signs of slowing.
“The White House and the campaign should focus 100% on the economic growth and opportunity society Trump is creating for America,” Reed said, somewhat hopefully.
But greater confidence and a freer hand can lead Trump to take risks. As Trump has repeatedly shown, he can show a measure of discipline in one moment — like his teleprompter State of the Union speech that was sprinkled with appeals to different demographic groups — and then do or say something that alienates swing voters.
His 62-minute stemwinder of retribution in the White House’s East Room, the day after the acquittal, was the type of ventilating performance Trump had been craving, but which some advisers acknowledge undermines the carefully crafted efforts at broadening his appeal.
“Many people are evaluating the president based on his conduct and behavior in office rather than the state of the economy,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “It’s his conduct and behavior in office that have kept a foot on his job approval rating. Any other president would be in the upper 50s or even low 60s with this economy.”
Trump advisers are focused not just on the three states that elected Trump in 2016 — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — but also the forever battleground of Florida, and battleground states with competitive Senate races that could help the Democratic nominee in Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina.
The campaign also sees opportunities for pickups in New Hampshire and especially in Minnesota, states that have voted for Democrats in recent presidential races but where the margins were close in 2016. But while campaign manager Brad Parscale has insisted New Mexico is within reach, other Trump advisers say there’s been little movement.