President Trump’s campaign ad that unexpectedly aired on Wednesday during Game 7 of the World Series should worry Democrats. In 30 seconds, it effectively made the argument that could reelect him — “Trump: Not Perfect, Just Better.”
It then turns to Democrats, displaying pictures of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.). The ad’s narrator castigates them for focusing on impeachment and “phony investigations” rather than addressing “the real issues.” It concludes by returning to Trump, saying Democrats aren’t stopping him. It ends with the line that shows an unusual degree of self-awareness for the famously bombastic Trump: “He’s no Mister Nice Guy, but sometimes it takes a Donald Trump to change Washington.”
The ad’s effectiveness was immediately noted by some leading Democrats. David Plouffe, one of former president Barack Obama’s top campaign gurus, even tweeted that the ad was “quite strong.” It’s always a good sign when even your opponents say your punch landed.
The closing line is the key to the ad’s effectiveness. It turns Trump’s biggest negative — himself — into a positive. Yes, he’s a (insert derogatory term here), but he’s our (derogatory term). His blunt toughness, the campaign will argue, is exactly what the country needs as he forces Washington to change against its will. Conservative writer Victor Davis Hanson has been making this argument for years, analogizing Trump to the gunfighter in a movie Western who the town knows is unsavory but who has the tools to clean it up. The fact that the campaign is now making it shows that staffers know they need to make lemonade out of the lemons Trump has given them.
This campaign will grow only sharper as Democrats push impeachment and investigation in Washington while their primary season descends into bitter warfare. Assuming the job market stays strong and the country remains untouched by terrorism, Trump will simply strengthen the contrast between his accomplishments and the unruly mob he is fighting. Once a nominee is selected, Trump will run a classic fear campaign to demonize his opponent as a dangerous person whose election the United States cannot risk. As long as he keeps noting that he’s not perfect, his argument that he’s just better could easily resonate with people open to voting for him.
Trump opponents will howl, but they’re not the president’s target audience. He knows that nearly half the country will never vote for him, and so he makes no concession to their views. Instead, he is ruthlessly focusing on improving turnout among his backers while directly talking to the 5-to-10 percent of the electorate whose votes will decide the election. Those people — Americans who disapprove of Trump and still are leery about impeachment — could decide that the devil they know is better than the devil they don’t.
A recent set of polls showed how crucial this group is. Sponsored by Siena College and the New York Times, these polls showed a majority of voters in six key battleground states backed an impeachment inquiry but oppose Trump’s removal. This was the case in every state surveyed, even in Democratic-leaning states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. Trump’s task is to persuade these voters to continue to oppose removal and then transform that belief into eventual support.
Acknowledging his flaws, even obliquely, is the key element in this effort. Don’t be surprised if the president continues to do this in carefully scripted interviews with fans such as Fox News’s Sean Hannity and makes a mea culpa part of his rally stump talk. Coupling that with a sustained effort to focus on issues and calls for cooperation after his inevitable acquittal by the Senate could easily turn the tables on the Democrats and Trump-haters who think they finally caught their prey.
Good pitchers know how to set up batters for the strikeout, showing them one pitch repeatedly before offering up a pitch they can’t handle. Trump’s confrontational approach has habituated Democrats into expecting constant insults and hardball tweets. If he now gives them the political equivalent of a change-up, don’t be shocked when they swing, miss and mutter angrily to themselves as they head back to the dugout in failure.