He’s mused out loud about an embarrassing 2020 defeat. He’s acknowledged his severe deficit in key polls. And he’s made naked appeals to the critical voting blocs of suburban women and older adults — two demographics he has struggled to win over.
Just weeks from Election Day, President Donald Trump is saying the quiet part out loud about his own campaign. The president is crisscrossing the country with a packed schedule, flying to some states he won handily in 2016, to deliver a final pitch for a second term — and making no secret of his own shaky standing.
“Could you imagine if I lose?” Trump said Friday evening at a campaign rally in Macon, Ga. “My whole life, what am I going to do? I’m going to say, ‘I lost to the worst candidate in the history of politics.’ I’m not going to feel so good. Maybe I’ll have to leave the country. I don’t know.”
Part of the act is tactical, aides say. Trump thrives on being underestimated, and they point to how the president came from behind in 2016. National polls at the time showed Trump lagging against Hillary Clinton in the weeks leading up to the election, yet he continued his marathon of rallies and latched onto news about Clinton that helped him paint a picture of elites in Washington that boosted his campaign. A similar strategy is in play once more, with the president back on the road and focusing his attention on news about the Biden family’s business dealings alongside allegations of his own unfair treatment.
“He campaigns best when he is counterpunching,” said Bryan Lanza, a lobbyist who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and transition and remains close to the 2020 campaign. “He’s the running back who runs toward the tackles as opposed to the running back who runs away. We used to say he’s like Rocky Balboa — he waits for his opponent to punch and then he comes back to deliver the knockout blow.”
Trump aides in this case hope the counterpunch can propel him to a better place in the race. Despite trying to project strength and confidence after his bout with the coronavirus, during which he went on supplemental oxygen and was hospitalized for three nights, the president has openly acknowledged just how far he has slipped. A poll released by Morning Consult on Thursday showed Democratic nominee Joe Biden ahead of Trump by 9 percentage points, and leading in the critical states of Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin and Michigan.
At campaign stops and in interviews, Trump has been openly grappling with the prospect of a loss and — like a TV pundit — articulating why exactly he’s behind.
Although more than half of white women voted for Trump in 2016, an ABC News/Washington Post poll released last week showed Biden leading Trump by 28 points among suburban women.
So at a rally in the Rust Belt town of Johnstown, Pa., the president aired conversations about the support he has lost from suburban women and continued his pitch to voters who live outside of places like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
“Somebody said, ‘I don’t know if the suburban woman likes you.’ I said, ‘Why?’” Trump told a crowd of supporters Tuesday night. “They said, ‘They may not like the way you talk.’ But I’m about law and order. I’m about having you safe.”
“So can I ask you to do me a favor? Suburban women, will you please like me?” Trump asked. “I saved your damn neighborhood.”
A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Trump down by 27 points against Biden with people over the age of 65, another key demographic that fueled his 2016 victory.
So while the president was recovering from Covid-19, he released a special video message aimed at his so-called “favorite people in the word: seniors.”
“I’m a senior,” the 74-year-old said. “I know you don’t know that. Nobody knows that. Maybe you don’t have to tell them, but I’m a senior.”
But the president still managed to step on his own message days later, when he tweeted out a meme mocking Biden — who Trump has suggested is senile — in a nursing home, surrounded by elderly people.
On Friday, he traveled to Fort Myers, Fla., considered a Republican stronghold, to deliver a speech on “Protecting America’s Seniors.”
“Seniors are under threat from a radical-left movement that seeks to destroy the American way of life,” Trump said. “We’re not going to allow it.”
Trump’s messaging — begging for votes, even half-jokingly — carries risks for the president at this stage of the race.
“He’s taking the wrong approach,” said longtime GOP pollster Frank Luntz. “He should be talking about earning their support rather than asking them to give him their support. He should be turning that electoral weakness into a strength.”
Over the past week, Trump has discussed the pressure to beat Biden and the potential embarrassment of losing to someone he has called the “single worst candidate in the history of presidential politics.”
The prospect of a Trump loss “is when he’s at his best,” said a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. “It’s a way to fire up our voters and get out the vote.”
Instead of focusing on polling, the president has pointed to crowd sizes at his rallies and the number of people lining the street to catch a glimpse of his motorcade.
“Our level of enthusiasm … I believe it’s the highest in the history of elections,” Trump said on Friday in Ocala, Fla. “And his level of enthusiasm,” Trump said of Biden, “is called nonexistent.”
Trump has embraced the underdog label in the final stretch of the election, claiming the system is working against both him and his base of supporters.
He has latched onto the narrative that the game is rigged, and everything from the TV networks to Big Tech is conspiring against him and his MAGA movement.
The president’s list of how he hasn’t gotten a fair shake grows almost daily. Just hours before his town hall with NBC on Thursday night, the president claimed he was being “set up” by the network. He tweeted that his campaign was “not treated fair” by the Commission on Presidential Debates when it chose C-SPAN political editor Steve Scully as the moderator for the then-cancelled second debate.
In speeches this week he has repeatedly grumbled about the effect the coronavirus has had on his economic track record, and has returned, again and again, to complaints about the “deep state” of bureaucrats in the U.S. government, which he says is conspiring against him.
Trump’s advisers have tried to make the president’s closing message more forward-looking by focusing on his ability to restart the economy after the first Covid-19 shutdowns. But the president has turned to relitigating the past election, sowing doubt about mail-in-ballots, criticizing media coverage and blaming Democrats for everything from urban unrest to a lack of progress on stimulus negotiations.
“It shouldn’t be, ‘They targeted me.’ It should be what the future will look like for the American family,” Lanza said of Trump’s final pitch to voters.
But with each grievance the president outlines, Trump is building a case for why outside forces, rather than the candidate himself, is to blame for any loss.
One former senior White House official said even the president contracting the coronavirus and losing a week on the campaign trail could be seen as a messaging “silver lining.”
If he loses, the official said, “Trump has another excuse.”
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