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The Memo: Can new campaign manager help Trump?

By Niall Stanage, THE HILL, 07/17/20

President Trump’s bid for reelection is in a perilous state — so much so that Trump would have to pull off a historic comeback if he is to win a second term.

Three polls in recent days have put Trump behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by a double-digit margin. One, from Quinnipiac University, had Trump lagging by 15 points.

Trump has responded by demoting his campaign manager, Brad Parscale. On Wednesday, the president announced that Bill Stepien would take the reins. Stepien was previously deputy campaign manager and first came to national prominence as a key aide to then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).

Stepien is well-respected in GOP circles, but he and Trump have a mountain to climb.

In the RealClearPolitics national polling average on Thursday evening, Trump trailed Biden by 8.6 percentage points. No winner of a 21st century presidential election has been so far behind so late in an election year.

Trump’s problems have compounded in an extraordinary way in recent months.

COVID-19 has killed almost 140,000 people in America, and Trump’s response has been broadly unpopular. The economy has gone into a tailspin, with unemployment rocketing from historic lows to double digits. The nation has also been roiled by racial tensions, with widespread street protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

There have been other embarrassments for Trump, too, at least one of which almost certainly led to the campaign shakeup.

A rally in Tulsa last month was sparsely attended even after his campaign had claimed to have received around 1 million ticket requests. The Supreme Court last week ruled against him in a high-profile case concerning his tax records. Two unfavorable books — one by former national security adviser John Bolton, the other by the president’s niece, Mary Trump — have drawn huge media attention and sales.

Even many Republicans acknowledge the president is in trouble.

“It’s not good for a variety of reasons,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who was the communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign. “One is that the trend lines are bad. It is one thing to be down four months before the election. It is another thing to be falling behind further.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are growing in confidence.

“No matter what happens, even if the COVID crisis were to die down or the economy bounces back, Donald Trump cannot avoid being Donald Trump,” said Lanny Davis, a prominent lawyer and Democrat who is also a columnist for The Hill. “I cannot see a pathway for him to win.”

The president’s partisans look back to the 2016 election, when Trump defied the polls and shocked the political world by defeating Hillary Clinton.

Stepien, in his first email to reporters since his elevation, made a version of this argument. 

“With 109 days left, our goal is clear — to win each day we have left until election day,” he wrote on Thursday. “If we win more days than Joe Biden wins, President Trump will be re-elected. We will expose Joe Biden as a hapless tool of the extreme left and contrast his failures with the undeniable successes of President Trump. 

“The same media polls that had the world convinced that Hillary Clinton would be elected in 2016 are trying the same trick again in 2020.  It won’t work,” Stepien added.

It is possible that Trump could come back. Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University, noted that there were three potential factors that could yet weigh in the president’s favor.

There could be a tightening of the polls after the party conventions, as voters who do not pay attention to every twist and turn of the political cycle tune in. There could be “hidden” Trump voters who do not want to own up to their preference to pollsters. Or there could be a significant impact when, as Zelizer put it, “Trump unleashes everything he has on Biden.”

The Trump campaign has already hammered Biden for a supposed lack of mental acuity, and it has also been trying to tie him to figures to his left, including his main primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). 

Trump alleged at a White House event on Thursday that “Joe Biden and his bosses from the radical left want to significantly multiply what they are doing now, and what will be the end result is, you will totally destroy the beautiful suburbs. Suburbia will be no longer.”

To Democrats, those kinds of allegations — and Trump’s other rhetoric around sensitive issues like race — are simply an effort to appeal to a shrinking base.

“He is going deeper and deeper into a darker and darker place, and he is starting to drive away people who were formerly voters of his,” said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon.

Even if Trump’s tactics were to prove more effective than critics such as McMahon believe, the president faces a very steep gradient. 

No comparable comeback has been made since 1988 — 32 years ago — when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was 17 points behind Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in one July poll from Newsweek and Gallup. 

In the end, Bush won easily, carrying 40 states and winning the nationwide popular vote by almost 8 points.

But even among some people in Trump’s orbit, there are huge question marks as to whether he can replicate that feat. 

They point to the pandemic above all. But some also muse in private about whether Trump himself is up for the fight as much as he was in 2016.

Another commonplace refrain is that it doesn’t really matter who the official campaign manager is because the real power behind the throne is Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser.

There is another fear, too. The pandemic could be retrospectively seen as the kind of an event that Trump simply cannot overcome, just as President George W. Bush’s ratings never recovered after Hurricane Katrina, or 2008 GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) faded in the polls against then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) once the financial crisis hit.

Trump’s supporters continue to believe he can buck all those historical trends.

But right now, his odds are lengthening by the day.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

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