Put another way, it was the sort of ad that you would expect a president's reelection campaign to release. It had an obvious target (women), an obvious message and focused on a place where there was obvious need. Which makes it a rarity in Trump's reelection campaign.
In his 2016 bid, the regular mantra of those leading his effort was that they should “let Trump be Trump” — meaning, let his instincts guide their outreach and engagement. After all, he had bucked norms to scoop up the Republican nomination and clearly understood how to motivate the Republican base. That the candidate himself was clearly uninterested in relying on others’ instincts to guide his approach also made this the path of least resistance for those working on his team.
When he won the general election, Trump clearly assumed that this strategy was the correct approach, not just one that happened to work. His presidency has unfolded in much the same way: Pour attention and benefits on his base, while keeping everyone else at a distance. His reelection campaign has been much of the same.
The challenge for Trump, of course, is that this probably isn’t the best way to win reelection in an increasingly polarized country and with an approval rating mired in the mid-40s. Trump trails former vice president Joe Biden by a wide margin both nationally and in state polls. Four years ago, Trump got the benefit of the doubt from people curious about how his administration might unfold. He no longer does. He needs to persuade people who have seen the past four years why he should have four more.
But Trump isn’t terribly interested in making that case. Over the past four years, thanks in part to the realities of being an unpopular president facing daily scrutiny from political opponents, the public and the media, he has buried himself in a nest of sycophancy. Internal critics have been ousted from the White House. Even before the pandemic, his public events were tightly controlled and limited to safe spaces. He has regularly sought comfort in large rallies and kid-glove interviews with Fox News — the network that he relies on to provide his window into the broader world. (During a rare non-Fox appearance last week, Trump attempted to rebut questions about the pandemic by citing numbers not from his coronavirus task force but instead from Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show.)
This cocooning has allowed Trump to continue to be Trump, certainly. But it has meant an immersion in a world that increasingly operates at a distance from reality. His insistence about how his campaign was spied upon — claims only lightly tied to actual evidence — are sincere in their anger, given that he feeds off Fox News’s focus on the idea as much as he feeds into it. By now it’s almost Howard Hughesian, reminiscent of the rich guy isolating himself in a clean world where he can control the unpleasantries that might filter in. (Note that this did not work with actual viruses.)
For members of his campaign team, then, things get tricky. They need to speak to people outside Trump’s bubble, but Trump is almost solely focused on that bubble alone. The others in that bubble, meanwhile, insist that it’s the bubble that is the real and that concerns should be the focus of Trump’s attention. Letting Trump be Trump in 2020 means letting the campaign drift into the bubble.
The problem for Trump’s campaign team is that focusing on the things Trump and Fox News want to talk about will generate more energy (and, presumably, fundraising) from the base, which the president very much needs to turn out to vote. Activating the base is essential, but it’s hard to both activate the base and expand it with a candidate who is really focused only on the former — particularly as his path to victory continues to erode.
Frank Luntz, one of the most celebrated messaging experts on the right, had harsh words for Trump's campaign team at an event this week.
“I’ve never seen a campaign more miscalibrated than the Trump campaign,” Luntz said, as reported by the Hill newspaper. “Frankly, his staff ought to be brought up on charges of political malpractice. It is the worst campaign I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been watching them since 1980.”
He pointed to the campaign’s focus on Joe Biden’s son Hunter, the subject of a sketchy report by the New York Post last week.
“Nobody cares about Hunter Biden,” Luntz said, questioning why the president spent so much time on the subject.
“Hunter Biden does not help put food on the table,” Luntz added. “Hunter Biden does not help anyone get a job. Hunter Biden does not provide health care or solve [the pandemic]. And Donald Trump spends all of his time focused on that, and nobody cares.”
Luntz is not wrong. Hunter Biden has been a much bigger subject on Trump’s Twitter feed in recent days, for example, than jobs or the economy have been.
At his rally in Erie, Pa., on Tuesday, Trump mentioned jobs 13 times. He mentioned Hunter Biden six times. He mentioned Hillary Clinton three times.
Why the focus on Hunter Biden? Again, because it’s what the bubble is talking about. Both Fox News and Fox Business spent large chunks of their coverage on Hunter Biden over the past week, while CNN and MSNBC barely mentioned him at all.
A video focused on the New York Post report and released Tuesday by the Trump campaign has been viewed 5.7 million times — nearly 10 times as often as the Fauci-coronavirus video released 11 days ago. Luntz throws up his hands at the subject, given how limited its appeal is outside the bubble. But a campaign in which Trump gets to be Trump in 2020 means a campaign that lives where Trump lives.
It also means a campaign that takes obvious pains to keep Trump happy. Doing things like spending $1.6 million on television ads in D.C., a place that Trump will lose by at least 70 points but where he happens to watch a lot of television. Doing things like promoting boat parades for no other reason than that Trump likes to see them. Doing rally after rally after rally, not because they move the polls — they don’t — but because they give Trump something to do.
“The president easily gets stuck in things of the past and tries to repeat them,” a former administration official told Politico. “Rallies are the best thing they have for him. He wants to be on the road, and you can’t tell him to do something different.”
If that means bucking local pandemic guidelines to talk to a cheering crowd for a while, so be it.
By now, there’s an air of fatalism to all this. Trump wants to lash out at his enemies in the media and in Big Tech. He wants to deride Biden and reporters as criminals. He wants to bury himself deeper in the comfortable world instead of facing the reality of his fumbling campaign.
At his rally in Erie, Trump joked about his needing to be there.
“Four or five months ago, when we started this whole thing because — you know, before the [pandemic] came in, I had it made,” he said. “I wasn’t coming to Erie. I mean, I have to be honest, there’s no way I was coming. I didn’t have to.”
He would have happily stayed in the White House, watching Fox News, immersing himself in accolades on his Twitter feed and railing about Hunter Biden. Now, though, he is forced to take the bubble on the road.