When Donald Trump was elected president, the big question was whether he would conduct himself in office as he had on the campaign trail — or whether he would become more “presidential.” The former has clearly won out.
And now that he’s running for reelection, the big question is whether his campaign will conduct itself like a real presidential reelection campaign and take advantage of his incumbency.
Early signs suggest the unwieldy commander in chief will remain a thoroughly unwieldy candidate and that his operation is hardly a well-oiled machine.
First came the leaking of some alarming internal polling. After the data were alluded to in reports, Trump repeatedly denied they existed. Then ABC News got the actual numbers, showing Trump trailing Joe Biden by double digits in some hugely important states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The Trump campaign’s response — rather remarkably — was to confirm the numbers, but also to suggest that Trump does better when pollsters use an “informed ballot.” This method often skews polls by using misleading or loaded information to influence voter choices. It’s what you use when the regular polls look bad. And relying upon those numbers, without providing the actual poll questions, is basically useless.
Then Trump this weekend fired three pollsters. Except that reporting thus far does not indicate that these three pollsters were responsible for the polling — it was a 17-state poll conducted by Tony Fabrizio, who will remain with the campaign — or for the leaks. It also suggests that a couple of the fired pollsters could resurface by working for a pro-Trump super PAC. If they were the actual leakers, it sure would be odd to keep them involved.
According to The Post’s reporting, Trump’s anger is geared toward the leaks rather than the polls. “He is madder that the numbers are out than that the numbers exist,” said one senior administration official.
But these data were alluded to by Politico and the New York Times before the actual numbers came out, and then both ABC and NBC News got their hands on the actual numbers. That’s a whole lot of leaking beneath a president who apparently doesn’t want people to know about these numbers and is willing to wreck shop in response.
And it mirrors the frequent leaks we’ve seen from Trump’s White House. Except you could argue that the White House leaks were meant to blow the whistle on problematic things happening behind the scenes that could impact the country. In the case of Trump’s campaign, there is no such consideration. Usually when you leak poll numbers like this, you are trying to lower expectations or send a message to your supporters of the troubling situation you find yourself in. If that was the message, Trump doesn’t seem to appreciate it.
And just think what this will now mean for Trump’s polling operation. If you are one of his remaining pollsters — John McLaughlin will stay, along with Fabrizio — how do you respond to a president who is so incensed at people knowing how poorly he is doing in 2020 polling? Even if Trump is madder about the leaks than the actual numbers, the best medicine would seem to be making the numbers not look so bad. And indeed, that’s exactly the message his team is sending by rather ridiculously promoting an informed ballot with no actual details.
But that’s not exactly a recipe for Trump knowing exactly what situation he’s in and responding accordingly. He has long cast doubt on public polls that show him struggling and promoted dubious Rasmussen polls that show his approval rating hovering around 50 percent. It’s not clear whether he actually believes the Rasmussen numbers or his informed-ballot numbers, but if he does, he’ll be missing the boat. Rasmussen, for instance, had Republicans up by one percentage point on the generic ballot shortly before the 2018 midterm elections. Democrats won by eight percentage points.
This is the point at which Trump supporters will be screaming about how he won in 2016, even though he was a hugely unwieldy candidate and his campaign operation was a fraction of what it is now. That’s true. He won as a historically unpopular candidate by eking out three key states by less than one percentage point, while running against the other most unpopular major-party nominee in recent history and losing the popular vote. It was a perfect storm that nobody should count on replicating in 2020.
An early hiccup in a campaign does not define it in perpetuity, but this is all a continuation of what we’ve seen from Trump as president. And it doesn’t suggest a particularly formidable operation or a steady hand guiding it.