President Trump walking along the South Lawn of the White House on June 25. PHOTO: DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES
Trump’s Re-Election Strategy: Run Like a Challenger
le 1 July 2020
Trailing in the polls, the president hopes to run an outsider campaign from inside the White House, casting Joe Biden as the establishment candidate
By Julie Bykowicz
and Michael C. Bender – The Wall Street Journal
President Trump’s case for re-election reprises his pitch for a first term in office, as he and his team try to portray presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden as an incumbent while accentuating his own outsider credentials.
In advertisements, interviews and social-media posts, Mr. Trump is highlighting Mr. Biden’s four decades as a Delaware senator and vice president—the most consistent message among several the president has driven so far about his competitor.
At a time when historic numbers of Americans are seeking jobless benefits amid coronavirus pandemic-induced lockdowns, the president has blamed Mr. Biden for thousands of job losses because of trade deals he backed in earlier decades. With national unrest over police brutality accelerating in Mr. Trump’s fourth year in office, the campaign has pointed to Mr. Biden for pushing criminal-justice laws in the 1990s that it says have destroyed “millions of black lives.” Mr. Biden’s campaign dismisses the strategy as a desperate one that won’t work.
Mr. Trump’s political advisers have disagreed over how best to attack Mr. Biden. The president continues to take aim at a range of targets—including Black Lives Matters protesters, the media and Democratic governors—that some supporters privately worry is shifting the focus from his actual opponent on the November ballot.
Overall, Mr. Trump’s advisers and key supporters want to avoid an election where the central question is a referendum on the Republican president, whose job approval rating in Wall Street Journal/NBC News polling has ranged between 38% and 47% during his time in office. Instead, the goal is to preserve the Washington outsider status that helped him win in 2016, according to Trump advisers.
Yet recent public and internal polls show that Mr. Trump’s handling of the health and police brutality crises “have actually elevated Joe Biden’s experience to be a very good thing in the eyes of voters,” said John Anzalone, a pollster for Mr. Biden. “They see Trump fumbling around and think, well, Biden’s a guy who at least knows how to make government work.”
Successful presidential candidates often win the office by initially campaigning as outsiders. Barack Obama leaned into his image as a change agent, and Ronald Reagan wore a cowboy hat in campaign ads, playing up a contrast with Washington politicians. It’s rarer for an incumbent to employ that strategy.
Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman, said the re-election effort should focus more on the president’s actions while in office.
“Trump is the president, not simply a candidate,” said Steve Bannon, the chief executive of the 2016 Trump campaign. “He is the protagonist in this drama. You drive action like a president, govern like a president, show leadership like a president and you will be re-elected. It really is that basic.”
The outsider label could be a tough sell because voters tend to view re-elections as more of a report card on the current officeholder than a binary choice between two candidates, according to longtime political strategists. Some Republican advisers also say they worry that Mr. Trump could come across as shirking responsibility if he leans too hard into the message that Mr. Biden is the establishment leader.
Mr. Anzalone called the president’s outsider strategy “a bank shot” that won’t work. “When you’ve been president for three and a half years, people are judging you on your actions. There’s no way around that. The outsider line that worked so well for him in 2016 has evaporated.”
Mr. Biden and his campaign are eager to keep voters focused on assessing Mr. Trump’s first term when they cast their ballots this fall, and are building a call for accountability into his messaging. In a speech Tuesday, Mr. Biden contrasted his own recommendations of how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic with the actions Mr. Trump took.
Jason Miller, a Trump campaign adviser, said the campaign plans to paint Mr. Biden as “part of every job-killing, failed policy decision of the past 40 years.” The campaign wants voters to see the race as a choice between “President Trump’s record of success in less than four years versus Joe Biden’s record of failure over more than 40 years.”
Mr. Trump touched on that theme in his campaign rally earlier this month in Tulsa, Okla., saying, “I’ve done more for the Black community in four years than Joe Biden has done in 47 years.”
Mr. Trump’s team points out voters are only just beginning to focus on the election, arguing there is time to turn around recent polling that shows Mr. Trump trailing nationally and in key battleground states.
Polls also suggest that Mr. Trump’s task will be tougher now than it was in 2016. At this point four years ago, 43% of voters had a very negative view of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, according to a WSJ/NBC poll. That same poll in June showed 26% of voters hold a similar view of Mr. Biden.
Mr. Obama’s presidential approval rating hovered in the mid-40s for much of the summer of 2012, higher than Mr. Trump’s now but low enough to concern his re-election campaign at the time. Mr. Obama’s allies spent much of the summer attacking GOP nominee Mitt Romney as a “corporate raider” to drive down his favorability just as general election voters were getting to know him.
Mr. Trump’s team has been split over how to best define Mr. Biden. While the president prides himself on his derisive nicknames, some on his team have privately questioned whether “Sleepy Joe” is effective, according to people familiar with the conversations.
An ad calling Mr. Biden soft on China was delayed and retooled. In the past month, the campaign has aired six additional TV ads with multiple messages. One questioned Mr. Biden’s “mental fortitude,” another claimed he was supportive of riots and looting. A third suggested Mr. Biden would dampen the economic recovery, though the Obama administration, which Mr. Biden served in, presided over seven years and seven months of consecutive economic growth, compared with three years for Mr. Trump.
The ads that focus on Mr. Trump’s time in office cast him as outside of the political establishment. “He did it his way—not the Washington way,” according to one spot.
Mr. Trump himself might have muddied his outsider message during an interview last week with Sean Hannity on Fox News. When asked to identify his priorities for a second term, Mr. Trump instead said he is now experienced in the ways of Washington, and that he knows all the right people. Mr. Trump was asked twice in the past two weeks to outline his priorities for a second term, but didn’t directly answer the question either time.
Mr. Trump retains an apolitical patina that appeals to some voters. Among Republicans, 84% view Mr. Trump as the agent of change in the race, compared with 6% who say Mr. Biden possesses that quality, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released June 7. Democrats and independents, by contrast, see Mr. Biden as the change agent, the survey found.
Mr. Trump “is a political outsider, not a career politician,” said Nicholas Bonavia, president of a Kansas real-estate company, who said he voted for libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson in 2016 but likes what he has seen from Mr. Trump.
Mr. Bonavia made his first donation to Mr. Trump, for the maximum $5,600, in late April. “He’s tried to shake things up, but there is so much opposition from the system that he should get more time to do it.”