Trump bets on re­play of 2016

SAME TAC­TICS, BUT A CHANGED LAND­SCAPE At­tempts at par­al­lels face epi­demi­o­log­i­cal re­al­i­ties

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL SCHERER AND JOSH DAWSEY

Pres­i­dent Trump and his ad­vis­ers are betting on a high­oc­tane 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 mask­less out­door events and an op­po­nent who has main­tained strong fa­vor­a­bil­ity 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 mis­char­ac­ter­i­za­tion 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

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 specter of a dev­as­tat­ing pan­demic that he has failed to con­tain, they say, Trump is now the in­cum­bent, with a record that has en­er­gized 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, N.C., on Satur­day. “By the way, on Novem­ber 4th, 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 $26 mil­lion 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 un­pop ular. Bi­den’s fa­vor­a­bil­ity has in­creased slightly since his Au­gust con­ven­tion, ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple polls, while Trump’s lower fa­vor­a­bil­ity 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 fa­vor­able rat­ing that was sig­nif­i­cantly un­der­wa­ter,” said Demo­cratic poll­ster Joel Be­nen­son. “You also had an open seat. This is a ref­er­en­dum on Trump.”

Yet nos­tal­gia for the last cam­paign re­mains a through­line 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 $25 mil­lion tele­vi­sion push by the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee fea­tures a di­rect-to-cam­era ad not from the pres­i­dent, but from a gray­haired 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 Oct. 24, 2016, the Trump and Clin­ton cam­paigns were evenly matched on tele­vi­sion, with Clin­ton spend­ing about 8 per­cent 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 far­ther 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.”

“In 2016, you had the un­prece­dented sit­u­a­tion with both ma­jor-party nom­i­nees hav­ing a fa­vor­able rat­ing that was sig­nif­i­cantly un­der­wa­ter.” Joel Be­nen­son, a Demo­cratic poll­ster

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