As a presidential race nears its end, campaigns often make last-minute decisions to shift resources around. Sometimes they abandon a state they’ve decided they can’t win, or make a play for a state that didn’t seem in reach; just a week before the 2000 election, George W. Bush scheduled a trip to California and claimed he could win the state, which was either an idiotic act of hubris or a clever show of confidence.

Over a year from the 2020 election, President Trump’s reelection campaign is trying something similar, an attempt with some interesting implications for how the campaign may play out:

Despite the Democratic Party’s statewide success here last November — winning two congressional seats up for grabs, defending a third and defeating Republican nominee Steve Pearce for the governor’s mansion — Trump and his aides are betting they can flip New Mexico next fall and expand his electoral playing field.
Their efforts begin Monday night with a campaign rally in Rio Rancho, which sits in a county Trump lost by 1,800 votes in 2016. The Hispanic-heavy city is four hours north of El Paso, Texas, where the president held a reelection rally in August that prompted campaign manager Brad Parscale to add New Mexico to his “watch list” — a list of nontraditional battleground states, including Maine, Colorado, Minnesota and Virginia, that the Trump campaign has its sights set on.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won New Mexico by a relatively modest eight-point margin, but that had something to do with the fact that Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor running as a Libertarian, got 9 percent of the vote. More recently, Democrats wiped out Republicans in the 2018 election; Democrats now hold every statewide office there.

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One reasonable response is to say, So what? Trump will have plenty of money for his 2020 race, so why not throw some at states he has little chance to win? Which is fair enough. Nevertheless, it does raise the question of whether Trump is capable of running a campaign that retains its hold on reality.

Reading this, I was reminded of a story related in Tim Alberta’s recent book “American Carnage.” In May 2016, after Trump had the nomination wrapped up, he had a meeting with Karl Rove in the apartment of casino owner and Republican donor Steve Wynn (who, like Trump, has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women). Wynn arranged the meeting so Rove could share his thoughts on general election strategy, and what Rove found was a candidate who, despite having just vanquished a huge field of professional politicians, was shockingly ignorant about presidential politics.

As they went around the map discussing what Trump would need to do to get to 270 electoral votes, Trump claimed he could win Oregon. Why? “I did really good in the primary there.” Rove responded, “There’s no way you can win Oregon.” Trump then said, “I don’t need to. I can win California.” “No, you really can’t,” Rove said. (Trump would lose California by 30 points.) “Well, I’ll win New York,” Trump said. “No, you won’t,” Rove said. (Trump would lose New York by 22 points.) On the other hand, Trump was equally shocked to learn that he could in fact win Iowa. “Why aren’t people in my campaign talking to me about this?” he asked Wynn.

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To repeat, this was not the Donald Trump of, say, 1995 or 2005, who had mulled a presidential run but never with any seriousness. This was the Donald Trump who had been campaigning for a year and had just secured his party’s nomination. Yet he was living in a bizarre fantasy world shaped by ignorance and delusions of limitless popularity.

Trump’s 2020 campaign will surely be just as haphazard and improvisational as the 2016 version was. And the New Mexico story may be revealing: Trump’s campaign manager says that after he held a rally in El Paso (right near the border with New Mexico), they realized how much potential there was to win the state.

But I’ll bet that what actually happened was that they had the rally, then Trump said, “That went great. I bet I can win New Mexico this time. Let’s make it happen.” And the campaign had no choice but to act on his stupid idea.

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Which of course sounds familiar, because it happens all the time in the White House: Trump gets some cockamamie notion in his head — Let’s buy Greenland! We should nuke hurricanes! I was right about Alabama! — and his toadies have to say, “Brilliant idea, sir, we’ll get right on that.”

Although Trump attributes his win in 2016 to his own genius, in fact it was the product of an extraordinary confluence of events almost no one could have foreseen, including the actions of the Kremlin on his behalf, the news media becoming convinced that no issue on earth was more important than whether Hillary Clinton used the wrong email, and James Comey’s 11th-hour intervention to screw Clinton over one last time, all of which enabled Trump to win an electoral college victory despite getting 3 million fewer votes than his opponent.

He might be able to do it again. But he might also wind up chasing a bunch of unwinnable states, based on little more than how loud a few thousand people chanted his name at a rally.

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