President Trump officially kicked off his 2020 re-election campaign this week in the key battleground state of Florida with a rally filled to capacity with throngs of Trump true believers. President Trump revels in being candidate Trump and showed that these large-scale events are his natural habitat. But even though three years have passed since Trump’s 2016 victory, you would not have known by his remarks. Watching it felt a bit like we had gone back to the future.
Vintage Donald Trump showed up in Orlando complete with the popular refrains about “crooked Hillary’s” email server, the “fake news media” and the Mueller “witch hunt.” Building the wall remained the main theme of his remarks, as did the criticism of ObamaCare. Overall, Trump mentioned very little about his accomplishments in the White House.
Instead, his speech was a rhetorical confetti cannon of red meat for his base. And the base was eating it up. There is just one problem. No one can win an election simply by delivering the base. Simply focusing on the super fans without persuading independent voters could spell trouble for President Trump.
However, the same could be true for the Democratic nominee. He or she runs the risk of focusing too much on attracting the loud base of progressives in the primary only to lose those in the middle who matter most in a general election.
Democratic candidates seem to be emboldened by a recent onslaught of polls suggesting that President Trump is on the ropes in a number of key states. In Florida, for example, former Vice President Joe Biden is beating Trump by 9 points. This is a state Trump narrowly won in 2016. The same Quinnipiac poll even has Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., winning Florida in a head-to-head against Trump. Out of all of the candidates in the Democratic field, Biden is the candidate that consistently does the best against President Trump in these state-level polls. But polls can be wrong which means neither Democrats nor Republicans can get complacent about the upcoming election if they want to win.
No matter who the Democratic nominee is, he or she must learn from the mistakes of Hillary Clinton. Democrats cannot assume they have an easy road to victory against Trump. The 2016 election proved anything is possible and polls may not be the most useful tool to predict public opinion. They cannot ignore the core constituencies of the white working class, but they cannot pander to them either. Democrats also cannot take the African-American community or women for granted. Hillary Clinton failed to hold together this coalition of voters and it cost her the election.
I saw the Democratic vote fall apart right before my eyes in Ohio during the last presidential race. One by one, I saw Trump yard signs go up all over my former state Senate district including in my own heavily Democratic neighborhood. Homes that once had my signs in their yard alongside an Obama sign were now adorned with Trump’s Make America Great Again message.
Many Ohioans, like many Americans, felt ignored by Hillary and the national Democrats, and in some cases insulted or talked down to by them as well. To beat Trump, Democrats cannot lose the forest through the trees. They must have a 50 state strategy engaging traditional constituencies, welcoming newcomers and earning the trust and respect of those who have walked away from the party. It will be a long, hard road to victory for Democrats, but it is possible. It is not, however, guaranteed like some may think.
But neither is Trump’s re-election. President Trump has flagging approval ratings throughout the country, including the Midwest where roughly just 40 percent have a favorable view of Trump’s job in the Oval Office. Twitter tirades, trade wars and looming international security threats all loom large over the White House. He can’t just use the same formula from four years ago and expect it to work in the same way.
Trump loves being a candidate. He thrives on the energy of the crowds as he did in Orlando this week. But the reality is he is also president of the United States. Being an incumbent flips the script for anyone. Candidate Trump can use his role as President Trump to his advantage if he focuses on what he has accomplished thus far. Talking about Hillary’s emails may excite the base that was with Trump in the last election, but it’s not going to sway voters in the next.
Buckle up. It looks like it’s anyone’s game in 2020.