All of the views expressed in this post belong to the author and not to Political Union as an organization.
I’m not a Republican, I’m not a political consultant, and I’m certainly not a Republican political consultant. That said, it’s all hands on deck for the folks in that line of work: the President’s approval rating is hovering just above 40%, and former Vice President Joe Biden leads in polls out of Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by an average of over 3 percent. Pundits are laying out a handful of paths through which Democrats might flip the Senate, and opinion polling shows a majority of Americans are sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement and unsympathetic to the President’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. If President Trump is now an underdog, as Politico’s election forecast machine suggests, then I thought it might be a useful armchair exercise to critically evaluate some ideas for how the President could turn his electoral fortunes around. Let’s get into it.
Attacking Democrats for Mixed Messaging on COVID Safety
This first potential strategy involves some bad faith messaging, but that hasn’t gotten in the way of desperate politicking before. The President needs to deflect blame for the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic; a resurgence of cases, particularly in southern and western states, has dominated news cycles for the last month. One strategy for doing so would be to shrug and claim no one really knew what the right pandemic-handling strategy was from the beginning, and then accuse Democrats of similar helplessness, or even hypocrisy.
This would involve calling out Democrats for their views on public assembly in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in late May. Democratic officials, as well as over 1,200 health experts, shifted suddenly from supporting extended quarantine orders to encouraging mass gatherings in protest of particularly worthy social justice issues. Thomas Chatterton Williams, a critic and columnist at The New York Times Magazine, articulated a centrist concern back on June 8th:
This feels like gaslighting. Less than two weeks ago, the enlightened position in both Europe and America was to exercise nothing less than extreme caution. Many of us went much further, taking to social media to castigate others for insufficient social distancing or neglecting to wear masks or daring to believe they could maintain some semblance of a normal life during coronavirus. At the end of April, when the state of Georgia moved to end its lockdown, the Atlantic ran an article with the headline “Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice”. Two weeks ago we shamed people for being in the street; today we shame them for not being in the street.
The President could woo certain moderate conservatives who are weary of his culture war priorities and want to return to their political base, precisely by highlighting such an inconsistency on the American left. Setting aside whether or not Floyd’s murder was justification for public protest during the pandemic, or even whether the protests have caused significant spread of the coronavirus, even liberals like myself must admit that the apparent contradiction in a heretofore resolute policy line is a weak spot. And while the President (and notably Tucker Carlson) has repeatedly complained about the different ways in which social media has treated anti-lockdown protesters and anti-racism protesters, the President has yet to truly put together a coherent and sustained attack on this particular subject—even though it seems to have fallen right into his lap.
Returning to Economic Populism
One of the standard arguments concerning the President’s election in 2016 involves his appeal to economic populism. In hindsight, analysts consider successful his overtures at the Carrier air conditioner plant in Indiana, his subsidy promises to farmers in Iowa and Wisconsin, and ultimately, his guarantee to oppose China on everything trade and labor related. Perhaps economic populism is one potential lifeline out of the polling gutter in the final runup to November. The President’s insistence on economic impact payments to individuals was a calculated political gambit in March, which banked on Democrats swallowing a potential political victory for Trump. The President could attempt the same thing again, for instance by promising to sign a larger relief package with more labor protections, but only if Democrats permitted another round of checks to individuals, with the President’s name printed in the corner as a tantalizing reminder of whom to vote for.
A big sticking point here, though, is whether the President actually wants to be an economic populist. Although it might favor him politically, being a populist involves at least giving off the appearance of favoring the economically disadvantaged at the expense of the wealthy, something which Trump has consistently shied away from. Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 is simultaneously his biggest populist selling point (it did cut taxes for middle class families) and the best example of his affinity for trickle-down approaches (the corporate tax rate fell from 35% to 21%). If the President can take his culturally populist message and refine it in economic terms, he may be able to cast himself as the politician of recovery, beset by a problem no one could have predicted.
Choosing a Consistent Scapegoat for the COVID Debacle
It’s quite clear that the President’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has not only exacerbated a grim public health emergency, but it’s also turned many winnable voters against him. So far, the President has attempted to place the blame for the spread of the coronavirus squarely on China and then attack Biden by associating him with China’s leadership class. This has proved to be a tenuous strategy, if only because the Biden campaign has pushed a similar message about Trump. China has now either genuinely flatlined its case numbers or is dishonestly dropping zeroes from their true counts; exports of PPE, ventilators, and other cutting-edge research have similarly held Chinese government stock steady worldwide. The Trump campaign would be wise to diversify its attacks.
Instead of China, I suggest that the President cast blame for America’s coronavirus problems on America’s governors and local officials. The President’s decision to decentralize coronavirus handling from very early on, in keeping with constitutional tradition on public health issues, signaled to some that the Trump administration might have a political opening to excuse itself in the case of a botched COVID response. Now might be their last chance to capitalize. The President has so far criticized Democratic governors (Gretchen Whitmer, a contender for Biden’s VP slot, comes to mind) for their zeal in issuing quarantine orders and shutting down business over the protests of Republican state legislators.
If Trump wanted to, he could switch course and blame governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York, JB Pritzker of Illinois, and Phil Murphy of New Jersey for slow reaction times and lackluster orders. He can assail Cuomo and Murphy for the staggering number of COVID-19 related, nursing home casualties in their states—the New York Department of Health found that 37,500 nursing home workers were infected with the coronavirus, and many passed it asymptomatically to residents, a third of whom in total fell ill. The president can then turn on Bill de Blasio, the unpopular mayor of New York City, for sanctioning anti-racism protests in a county where 1 in 372 residents have died from COVID-19, tying this line of attack back to the one above on discordant policies on protest and safety.
Two clear issues arise with this strategy. The president cannot employ this strategy without shoving under the rug his own painful soundbites on studying the efficacy of cleaning fluid treatments and the “Chinese hoax” origins of the virus itself. Trump will be hard pressed by Democrats to explain the linear logic between his February-March denialist stance and his newfound blame-it-all-on-the-states approach. I don’t, however, see this as a significant obstacle to the Trump campaign. His current strategy of attacking Biden with flimsy allegations of illicit Chinese connections seems like a way to deflect liberal criticisms of Trump’s own record on China. Voters have notoriously short memories, and many lifelong Republicans recently disenchanted by Trump’s leadership may be looking for excuses to reelect the president.
The second and larger issue stems from the damage Trump would certainly do to his own party if he used this option. While Cuomo, Murphy, and Pritzker presided over the first devastating wave of coronavirus cases, it’s Republican governors in Florida, Texas, and Arizona who are currently watching their ICUs fill and their case numbers skyrocket. While none of the three is up for reelection in the same cycle, Trump deflecting blame onto down-ballot Republicans might further separate him from the Republican establishment in voters’ minds, and make clinging to the president difficult for Republicans with state-wide experience. It’s quite likely that Republican leadership on the Hill would be horrified if Trump were to attempt a sacrifice of a rising star like Ron DeSantis to save his own ticket. There’s also the consideration that conservative voters in coronavirus-wracked states may actually feel more allegiance to their governors (or the Republican party) and feel offended at Trump’s suggestion that the blame lies with their state leadership. For these reasons, this tactic is ultimately a political last resort.
Nominating Another Supreme Court Justice
Then-candidate Trump released a list of potential Supreme Court nominees in July 2015, aiming to show America’s skeptical Republicans that his presidency would mean a solidly textualist, conservative judiciary. By most indications, this worked. Trump attempted a similar strategy in the run-up to the 2018 midterms, nominating Brett Kavanaugh to fill retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy’s seat, and he watched America’s electorate re-polarize itself according to ideology and party orientation. Some argue that the Kavanaugh nomination cost Trump winnable House seats; others say that it thoroughly energized the Republican base, preventing more seats from flipping.
In any case, a more far-fetched strategy involves the president asking one of the Court’s elder conservatives—Alito or Thomas, the latter being 72 years old—to step down and allow Trump to nominate another conservative justice.
This brings with it all sorts of questions. Would Trump be best off selecting a female Court nominee to bring back suburban women excited about Biden’s VP pick? Would he benefit most from picking any nominee who is tailor-made for the president’s culture war campaign strategy, someone who would proudly tell the Senate Judiciary Committee that Roe must be overturned? Would either Thomas or Alito even agree to such a maneuver, clearly risking their own legacies in the process?
On July 8th, the Supreme Court’s final day of the current term, neither Thomas nor Alito announced their retirement. They can still do so in the coming weeks, but tradition would have seen them step aside already. This strategy would be a home run swing for the Trump campaign. It’s likelihood of actually coming to fruition, though, is lower than any of the other suggestions I discuss here.
Suppressing the Vote
Here’s where things get sketchy. Because November will look so different from any general election in living memory, there’s possible political cover for the President to advocate significant electoral changes that might restrict or suppress “unfriendly” segments of the vote. Republicans, choosing this strategy, would have to set aside the illegitimacy of claims that absentee voting brings about widespread fraud—and set aside the resultant hypocrisy, given that both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both have recently voted absentee.
Back in April, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled state legislature blocked the extension of deadlines for absentee balloting, and then they successfully defended their position before the state’s supreme court. Another court decision in late June reaffirmed that Wisconsin’s early voting period will not be extended, and that absentee ballots can only be delivered by mail. In Kentucky’s June 23rd primary, Jefferson County, home to Louisville and half of the state’s Black voters, had just one in-person polling place. On June 26th, the US Supreme Court rejected an initial bid from Texas Democrats to permit absentee voting by all Texas residents (the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit is weighing whether to take this case, and may yet deliver a ruling before November). Texas’s current rules let only the elderly, disabled, incarcerated, or those absent from their home county vote by absentee ballot. Texas’s particularly strict absentee law primarily affects the more-liberal 18-64 demographic in Texas, functioning in concert with Trump’s notion that when there’s more absentee balloting, “for whatever reason, [it] doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
In many of these cases, the president only needs to discourage liberalization of absentee voting standards in the country’s hardest-hit states. He need not expend limited political capital on rolling back existing absentee balloting laws, because few swing states have open ones to begin with. The political high ground rests with Republicans, because the current absentee voting regime does not correspond well to the coronavirus scenario.
But then again, there are some non-ethical issues here too. Many local and statewide Republican officials are actually in favor of broadened access to absentee balloting, as their conservative rural constituents often return ballots at higher rates than Democrats, and because elderly voters, who tend to vote for Republicans, may be reasonably afraid of contracting illness at an in-person polling facility come November. Ultimately, as FiveThirtyEight found a couple of months back, absentee balloting and “vote-by-mail” systems do boost turnout, but they don’t have a significantly favorable effect for either party. Even a majority of Wisconsin Republicans voted absentee in April. Trump might choose this tactic, but there’s reason to believe that doing so means shooting himself in the foot.
(Find information about the absentee voting regulations in your state here).
It goes without saying that I would hate to see a targeted campaign of disenfranchisement or voter suppression from the president’s campaign in the run-up to November. I’m not quite certain that the Trump White House, until now incapable of handling much more urgent political priorities, would be able to finesse such a strategy. That I even mention this as a possibility—or, given Trump’s Twitter track record on the issue, a probability—is a testament to how weak his current polling situation appears.
I also tend to agree with Ross Douthat, a columnist at the Times and a frequent contributor to their podcast The Argument, when he said that three things were necessary for Trump to get back within striking distance this fall: the diminishment of the coronavirus as a political issue, the skyrocketing of the intensity of protest-related urban violence, and “a terrible debate performance by Biden that calls into question his mental capacities.” The fulfillment of one, let alone all three, is a tall order to begin with. Hopefully this post will be a series of moot points come November.
I hope you enjoyed this piece, and the increased quantity of opinion content that Political Union has been including on the blog. As always, I look forward to hearing from you about which strategies are strongest, which are most likely, and which I was absolutely foolish to have left out. Thanks for reading!
Welcome to Political Union's blog! All opinions expressed are those of our writers, and not NU Political Union.