Trump hopes for a 2016 replay while facing a changed landscape

'There's something going on. It happened this time four years ago. This time more,' says president at Ohio rally

Michael Scherer,Josh Dawsey
Sunday 25 October 2020 14:13 GMT
Supporters cheer as US President Donald Trump arrives to speak during a campaign rally at Pickaway Agriculture and Event Centre in Circleville, Ohio on 24 October, 2020
Supporters cheer as US President Donald Trump arrives to speak during a campaign rally at Pickaway Agriculture and Event Centre in Circleville, Ohio on 24 October, 2020 (AFP via Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

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Donald Trump and his advisers are betting on a high-octane replay of the closing two weeks of his 2016 campaign, with nonstop travel for packed rallies filled with attacks on alleged Democratic corruption in a bid to reignite the outsider spirit that defied the polls once before.

Despite health authorities discouraging his largely mask-less outdoor events and an opponent who has maintained strong favourability ratings, Trump is urgently trying to reassemble the core elements of his 2016 upset win: news coverage of red-hatted spectacles, calls for a criminal investigation of his rival and the mischaracterisation of allegedly leaked documents in the final stretch of the campaign.

A Trump rally in Ohio on Saturday showed how much he is reaching back to 2016. He told the crowd, apparently referring to wrongdoing by his opponents: "There's something going on. It happened this time four years ago. This time more."

The crowd began a "lock him up" chant – an echo of the "lock her up" calls against Hillary Clinton – after Trump described alleged spying on his campaign by Joe Biden and former president Barack Obama. Trump then pretended to tell the crowd to stop, saying mockingly: "It's much better if I say, 'No, no, no, please.' "

Trump advisers say data from the rallies and fundraising indicate a late surge in support is again possible, despite polls that show the president trailing. "There are striking similarities to the president's campaign in 2016 – a tight race, an enthusiasm advantage and clear momentum down the stretch for Donald Trump," campaign manager Bill Stepien said between stops Saturday, as Trump attended three events. "It just feels right again."

Democrats dismiss the narrative that conditions are coalescing for a repeat of 2016 as wishful thinking on the part of a president who is clearly losing. Beyond the spectre of a devastating pandemic that he has failed to contain, they say, Trump is now the incumbent, with a record that has energised Democrats in an almost unprecedented way.

Voters four years ago may have been unsure what a Trump presidency would look like, and many were willing to gamble. This time, the Biden team argues, voters are looking for calm and competence, not braggadocio and chaos.

Indeed, for most of this year, Trump's attempts to draw parallels to his first campaign ran headlong into harsh epidemiological realities. The coronavirus pandemic forced him to scale back and cancel events, including two versions of his nominating convention, and his handling of the issue has alienated key segments of the electorate. Most strikingly, Trump's own bout with the novel coronavirus forced him off the campaign trail for several days.

Trump continues to dismiss coverage of the health crisis as a political tactic by his opponents to scare the American people.

"Turn on television, 'Covid-19, Covid-19, Covid-19, Covid-19, Covid-19, Covid-19.' A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don't talk about it," Trump said at an event in Lumberton, North Carolina, on Saturday. "By the way, on 4 November, you won't hear about it anymore. It's true."

Federal officials announced Friday that more than 80,000 Americans had tested positive for the coronavirus, the highest daily number this year of positive tests in a pandemic that has already killed at least 224,000 people in the United States and at least 1.15 million people worldwide. The airplane crash Trump described was apocryphal.

In Trump's tight circle, the priority is re-creating the campaign spirit that won Trump the White House in the first place. Large gatherings give Trump a personal morale boost; his aides have been joking on Air Force One about the relatively quiet optics of Biden's drive-in events.

They also point to a $26m (£19m) fundraising haul this past week in a 24-hour period after the debate.

"In 2016, we saw a similar surge in grass-roots donations after the last debate," said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. "The surge in grass-roots support has now happened, and last time was followed by movement in the polls."

Trump is one of the few political figures to reach the presidency without having run any previous political races. Most presidents have not only won several earlier campaigns, but have also generally lost at least one, giving them a sense of how a shifting political landscape can dictate varying tactics and different strategies.

Beyond that, Trump's first run was marked by improbable events and repeated warnings that he could not win, only to have him score one of the biggest upsets in presidential history, a dynamic that gives his allies hope this time around.

Yet Trump is facing a very different kind of opponent than Clinton, who was broadly unpopular. Biden's favourability has increased slightly since his August convention, according to multiple polls, while Trump's lower favourability remains basically unchanged. Biden is viewed far more positively than Clinton, despite the tens of millions of dollars that have recently been spent to sully his reputation.

"In 2016, you had the unprecedented situation with both major-party nominees having a favourable rating that was significantly underwater," said Democratic pollster Joel Benenson. "You also had an open seat. This is a referendum on Trump."

Biden made two campaign stops in the battleground state of Pennsylvania on Saturday, 24 October
Biden made two campaign stops in the battleground state of Pennsylvania on Saturday, 24 October (Getty Images)

Yet nostalgia for the last campaign remains a through-line of Trump's stump speech. As he did with Clinton in 2016, Trump has argued that his opponent should be investigated and imprisoned. He compares the alleged laptop of Biden's son Hunter to a laptop owned by the husband of a Clinton 2016 aide, which led to a late-campaign announcement by the FBI that some emails of the Democratic candidate had been uncovered.

"This is called the laptop from hell," Trump said in a riff at a recent event in Arizona, discussing the device allegedly owned by Hunter, a fact that has not been confirmed by The Washington Post. "The only laptop that was almost as good, maybe worse, was the laptop of Anthony Weiner. Do you remember that? Ding, ding, ding, ding."

Aides even sought to replicate the 2016 surprise of bringing accusers of Bill Clinton to meet the press before one of his debates with Hillary Clinton. But this time, the guest, Hunter Biden's former business partner, did not attract as much attention, and Trump himself did not join the business partner for the appearance.

The Trump campaign is being run and advised almost entirely by people who went through the 2016 campaign with him. They say they have the same sense of a scrappy underdog campaign, with a money disadvantage, an overconfident opponent who travels less and polls that say they are going to lose.

But those same aides express frustration at the seismic shift in press coverage. In smaller local media, Trump's rallies continue to get enormous attention, amounting to tens of millions of free advertising a week, according to internal campaign analyses.

But the national media has shifted its approach to both Trump's rallies and his accusations of corruption against the Biden family, treating documents that allegedly surfaced on a laptop once owned by Biden's son with marked skepticism.

"The biggest difference between '16 and '20 is the coverage of what I will call corruption; other people might call it something else," said a campaign official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more frankly. "People paid attention to it in 2016. People reported on it. But they are not this time around."

Cable news networks in 2016 carried Trump rallies with a certain breathlessness, sometimes showing the empty stage as the crowd awaited the candidate's arrival. This time, they often decline to cover the spectacles live, while interviews, a key way for Trump to broadcast his message in 2016, have become far more confrontational as journalists pick through his record. Trump prematurely ended an interview this past week for CBS News's "60 Minutes" after objecting to questions from reporter Lesley Stahl.

More broadly, Democratic voters in 2016 were badly divided, and many were complacent, with little doubt that Clinton would prevail. In contrast, Trump's first term has largely unified the American left.

Aides have pushed Trump to return to the 2016 outsider theme, and the president himself has said he fares better as an "outsider." In recent days, several aides have said he's in the best mood in months now that he's going on the road and basking in the adulation of crowds. In addition, some of the president's closest advisers work to show him positive polls to keep him happy.

Trump's political advisers met two weeks ago to reassess their advertising strategy, worried about viewing the election as an up-or-down question about Trump's performance. They recently shifted their advertising spending away from defending Trump's record toward attempts to scare people about Biden's policy priorities.

A new Trump ad this past week – which was run more than any other spot during the week, according to Advertising Analytics – makes no mention of Trump's record, the coronavirus or crime. It asks instead what a Biden victory would "mean for you", and it then predicts higher taxes, higher gas prices, higher utility bills, lower income and fewer jobs.

A concurrent new $25m television push by the Republican National Committee features a direct-to-camera ad not from the president, but from a grey-haired actor playing a senior concerned about Biden changing Medicare in a way that would purportedly close hospitals and separate voters from their doctors.

The campaign has also begun playing a video at the start of rallies that cuts between a tense Democratic primary debate exchange that Biden had about cutting entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, as well as decades-old comments he made when he was open to entitlement cuts as part of larger budget revision. Biden's campaign has promised not to cut either program if he is elected.

The overall goal is to argue to traditional Republicans who may have doubts about Trump that whatever the president's flaws, Biden is a tax-and-spend liberal who would make life worse for many Americans.

The Biden campaign argues that Biden has been a moderate for a half-century in politics, and that voters will not buy into Trump's portrait of him as a socialist.

"He has been forced to divest from making a case for himself and is instead resorting to even more wild-eyed, projection-based lies about Joe Biden that have failed him for months and that fact-checkers have already carved to pieces," Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in response to the ads.

The Trump campaign is also in an even weaker relative position than in 2016 when it comes to money available for television ads. Over the four weeks ending 24 October, 2016, the Trump and Clinton campaigns were evenly matched on television, with Clinton spending about eight per cent more in total, according to Advertising Analytics.

This time, the two campaigns are much farther apart, with Biden's campaign spending 2.3 times what Trump has spent over the past four weeks.

None of this has stopped Trump from claiming that he's in a stronger position than he was in 2016, an assertion that has been encouraged by Trump's advisers who believe he is a more effective salesman for himself when his spirits are high.

At a private fundraiser in Nashville before Thursday's debate, Trump said he felt like he could drive a golf ball 50 yards further than retired golfer John Daly, who was known in his day as one of the longest drivers in the game.

"We have the strongest base, probably ever in politics. Our people are coming out. Whether it's rain or snow or sleet, our people are coming out," Trump said, predicting record turnout.

He returned repeatedly to reliving the glory of the 2016 campaign, recounting at one point watching CNN's John King narrate election returns with a digital map.

"Everything's red, the whole thing is red," Trump said, recalling the moment. "And I would say – and it's very early yet – and I would say we are much stronger right now than four years ago."

The Washington Post

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