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Opinion The Trump campaign has a terrible 2020 strategy

President Trump at a campaign rally in Orlando on Tuesday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
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President Trump’s campaign told Time magazine this week that its strategy for reelection relies on stoking turnout among his base. If that’s true, the president is much likelier to lose than many Republicans think.

Turnout-based strategies have become all the rage in recent years. With data showing increasing polarization among voters, many strategists think persuading swing voters is passe. Better to give a smaller group of voters exactly what they want to hear, drive up their enthusiasm and, thereby, raise the likelihood that they will vote.

The data, however, don’t support this approach. For all the talk about how enthusiasm last year among the Democratic base was way up, a recent analysis shows Democrats would not have won the House without persuading millions of former Republicans and independent voters to back them.

Trump’s own 2016 victory also points to persuasion, not turnout, as the key. Exit polls showed that 18 percent of all voters did not like him or Hillary Clinton on Election Day. Pre-election polls examining that particular bloc of voters found they were largely undecided or were backing third-party candidates until late October. It was their last-minute decision to reluctantly back Trump, not unprecedented turnout surges, that gave Trump his surprising wins throughout the Midwest.

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Data from wave midterm elections in the past decade also support the persuasion template. Democrats carried independents by large margins in their 2006 wave, and Republicans did the same in their 2010 landslide. The composition of the electorate did not change much between those election years; the difference was that millions of voters changed their minds.

It’s not that turnout is unimportant. Increased turnout last year definitely helped Democrats, and Trump persuaded many non-college-educated white voters who sat 2012 out to vote for him in 2016. Certainly, Barack Obama was significantly helped in both of his presidential bids by record-high turnout among African Americans. But, in all these cases, turnout alone did not drive the victory; persuading swing voters was the key.

Turnout efforts can help Trump’s reelection, but they need to be focused on a small group: non-college-educated whites who are not habitual voters. Analysis shows that non-college-educated whites vote at rates roughly comparable to African Americans and at much lower rates than college-educated whites. Given the large size of this population, even seemingly small increases in voting could bring millions of voters to the polls. Since non-college-educated whites are Trump’s core support group, focusing on this discrete population can yield large dividends for Trump.

But simply targeting this demographic isn’t enough. Nonvoters tend to be disinterested in politics or believe their votes won’t matter. If Trump’s core message were enough, this group would already be voting at higher rates than it is. Therefore, a successful turnout strategy for this key group actually requires a successful persuasion strategy, too.

Persuasion also needs to be directed at a host of other groups. The Trump campaign told Time that its initial research shows Trump’s position on China is a motivating issue for Latinos in the Southwest. This should not come as a surprise; Latino voters gave Republican incumbents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush much higher than normal support in their reelection bids. Both presidents campaigned extensively on patriotic themes that involved standing up to an identifiable foe (the Soviet Union for Reagan, Iraq and terrorists for Bush). Latinos are also more likely to have working-class jobs — exactly the sort of work threatened by competition from Chinese firms. A campaign that focuses less on immigration and more on fighting China would likely resonate among both white and Hispanic working-class voters, potentially increasing turnout and persuading swing voters.

The president will also need to persuade some of the millions of “reluctant” 2016 Trump voters who backed Democratic candidates in 2018 to return to his favor. In 2016, he effectively persuaded them that Clinton was worse than him, even though these voters disliked both. If he can’t change these voters’ image of him, he needs to run a similar campaign that argues that “Never Socialist” is more important than “Never Trump.” This message also works as a turnout message for the base by presenting a clear and present threat that can only be stopped by voting.

Trump’s unconventional style masks just how conventional his 2016 approach really was. He identified a base in the primaries and motivated them to vote. He then broadened his general election coalition by embracing more core issues in his campaign bid — most important being his promise to appoint conservative judges. Finally, he made the general election a clear choice for the remaining undecided voters — “Never Hillary” or “Never Trump.” His rallies and rhetoric were unique, but this tried and true approach is what every budding consultant learns in campaign school.

The president’s reelection campaign needs to follow the same model, adapting it slightly to reflect new issues and new personalities. If he falls for the siren song of a turnout-only approach, he shouldn’t be surprised if he’s the one standing behind the president-elect on Inauguration Day.

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