When President Donald Trump arrived in small-town Monaca, Pa., recently for an official White House event to promote his administration’s energy goals, he took it as an opportunity to focus on what he loves most: his campaign plans.
The president’s preview of his fall campaign message drew on a tangled web of unresolved issues he promises to sort out during a second term: winning against China, even though his trade war is already denting the U.S. economy; finishing a southwest border wall, which has only been reinforced or replaced in certain areas since he took office; approving pipelines, even though existing proposals sit waiting for approval in his current term; and fighting “massive” deficits with top U.S. trading partners, even though most have expanded since he took office.
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“I’ve more than fulfilled my promises,” Trump boasted at the gathering last month. “But we’re going to produce more and more.”
Trump is preparing to play out the rest of his presidency in a way he’s always found most comfortable: in campaign mode, talking about what he’ll fight for if reelected. And his aides are building an operation with a rigorous campaign schedule that lets the president lean into his strengths with more rallies, more attacks on Democrats and more promises for what Trump could accomplish with four more years.
The Trump campaign is positioning its candidate to capture the attention of voters outside his core base in the waning months of 2019, as Democrats attack each other before the field shrinks. Part of the plan includes deploying Trump and field staff to states he lost in 2016 by close margins, or where they claim to have spotted trends that could be politically advantageous to the incumbent Republican.
A campaign official said Trump could host rallies in Minnesota, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. The president’s reelection operation already has boots on the ground in some of those states, and expects to be in all of them by the end of the year.
On the stump, campaign officials say Trump will paint a rosy picture of the U.S. economy and America’s global standing — linking both to his nationalist, populist agenda — while chalking up unfulfilled promises and messy policy debates to Democratic obstruction. He will stick to his normal highlight reel of accomplishments — think judicial appointments, tax cuts, criminal justice reform and his administration’s effort to end China’s trade abuses — but he may also unveil new policy proposals on tech, guns, immigration and health care out on the trail, according to two Republicans close to the White House.
Delivering new policy ideas will keep the president “fresh in voter’s minds,” a GOP strategist said, against the onslaught of trillion-dollar climate change proposals, immigration reform plans and health care changes outlined by Democratic presidential hopefuls.
“For all the snark the president and his team face on these issues, there is a method to the madness and I think you’re going to see small coalitions built out around certain issues that Democrats have always just expected to own,” said Alex Schriver, executive vice president at the GOP-linked marketing firm Targeted Victory.
Part of the reason for the expansion is the sheer amount of data and earned media the Trump campaign gleans whenever the president hits the trail. “It’s like gold for us when he drops into a state,” another campaign official said.
To maximize the value of Trump’s rallies — which voters can attend only after submitting their contact information to the campaign in exchange for tickets — aides say they plan to build out events immediately before and after the president’s rallies. The campaign pilot-tested the idea in late August, when Trump’s 2020 spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany hosted an economic roundtable in the Manchester suburbs 48 hours before he arrived for a rally in New Hampshire.
Voter registration and volunteer training efforts have also been initiated in these states and will be expanded throughout the fall as more resources are deployed.
In Minnesota, which last voted for a Republican for president in 1972, one campaign official said aides were surprised to learn that the field staff beat every other state in voter registration over a recent two-week period. Trump came within 1.5 percentage points of winning the deep blue Midwestern state in 2016.
“We have the great luxury of being able to pursue and absolutely fully fund everything that we need to run the original campaign plan, but the resources we have will allow us to consider playing in states a lot of campaigns wouldn’t be able to afford to do,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign.
Financially, the Trump campaign enters the fall in a comfortable place, with around $100 million in cash on hand between itself and the Republican National Committee, and a robust fundraising schedule in the weeks ahead. Trump will attend three donor events in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas during a two-day swing through California later this month, and has a stop planned in San Diego as well. Invitations to all four fundraisers obtained by POLITICO show tickets ranging from $1,000 to $250,000.
With its unprecedented war chest, the campaign has installed dozens of staffers in target states and continues to build out its core team at its headquarters in Virginia.
It has also benefited GOP candidates who face special elections this fall.
On Tuesday, the Trump campaign announced that it had contributed the maximum amount of $2,000 to Dan Bishop and Greg Murphy in a show of “unwavering support” for the two men, who are vying for congressional seats in North Carolina. Trump is set to travel to Fayetteville, N.C., for a rally next Tuesday on the eve of both elections, one of which — in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District — has become a nail-biter for the Republican Party at large.
“At this point in a special election people have already made up their minds. He may get a few low-propensity voters who normally turn out only in presidential years, but we’ll see,” said a GOP official in the state.
Some Trump advisers have privately acknowledged their fear that if North Carolina’s 9th District goes Democratic, so goes the presidency next November. They say both nightmare scenarios would largely be the president’s fault, and point squarely to the controversies Trump stirred this summer — including his Twitter attack against four minority progressive congresswomen, his criticism of Baltimore as a “rodent-infested mess” and unsubstantiated corruption charges against its Democratic representative, Rep. Elijah Cummings, and his conflicting statements during the G-7 summit in France.
“If we can’t hang on to NC-9, [Trump] might as well tell his campaign staff in Georgia, Florida and elsewhere to pack up and move on,” said a person close to the campaign.
Two polls released last month have spelled trouble for the president as Congress reemerges from its August recess and he heads into the fall with few legislative victories on the horizon.
Among them, a Fox News survey underscored one of the greatest challenges Trump faces: convincing voters who support his policies, but dislike his Twitter outbursts and unorthodox approach to politics, that they can stomach four more years. Forty-three percent of respondents in the poll approved of Trump’s job performance, but he received only 38 to 39 percent support in matchup polls against Democratic opponents. The second poll, by Quinnipiac University, found an increase in voters who think the economy — a defining part of the president’s reelection message — is getting worse.
The Trump campaign has dismissed concerns about an economic downturn as a crisis manufactured by the president’s critics. And despite troubling polls and the myriad campaign promises that remain incomplete, Murtaugh said he is confident their message will resonate more and more as the Democratic primary drags on.
“There is still more to be done,” Murtaugh said, “but with the clear message that if you turn things over to the other guys, you know what they’re going to do and that’s exactly nothing.”