Republican allies of President Trump are researching new ways to position him in the run-up to the 2020 election, particularly among the college-educated suburbanites who voted for Democrats in November because of their disapproval of the president.
One polling effort is intended to test messages and policy initiatives for the next State of the Union address and the coming year, while providing a better understanding of what worked and what did not in the midterm elections, according to a person familiar with the Trump reelection effort who, like others interviewed, was not authorized to discuss strategy publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Other Republican-aligned research projects are planned to decode the 2018 results in an effort to reclaim voters Trump will probably need to win reelection. The research will test the appeal of crossover issues Trump could champion in swing states among voters the GOP has been losing — such as new initiatives to control the costs of prescription drugs, deal with student loan costs and tackle the opioid crisis.
“You look at Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, those are the places where the real battleground is going to be,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “The soft spot for Republicans is highly educated females in the suburbs.”
The Republican National Committee has launched its own data analysis of the 2018 results. A second effort is affiliated with America First Action, a super PAC that spent more than $30 million before this year’s election, largely in states that are expected to be battlegrounds in 2020. The third effort by another outside group that supported Trump’s 2016 campaign will focus on decoding the sentiments of counties in the Midwest that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016.
“The open question is, how is it that we can continue to maintain this loyalty and enthusiasm among the base and begin to chip away” at persuadable voters, particularly in the suburbs, said a strategist involved in one of the efforts.
Another question is how much Trump will alter his behavior to assist his reelection campaign — if he agrees to do so at all.
The lifelong salesman’s go-to strategy is to deny problems and blame others. As 2020 approaches, that tendency is likely to clash with mounting legal challenges, new signs of economic volatility and a midterm election result that showed significant erosion of GOP support in key voting groups.
Since the midterms, Trump has continued to rant on Twitter about his Justice Department and other grievances, threatened to shut down the government to fund a new border wall and presided over a White House defined by internal dysfunction. “The news and the polls are really fake,” he said in a Fox News interview last week.
But by any measure except his own, Trump has not expanded his reach beyond the 46 percent of voters who cast ballots for him — and polls indicate substantial weakness among key voter groups since then.
Trump struggled to reach out to alienated voters in the 2018 midterms, choosing to overrule the pleadings of GOP House leaders by embracing hard-line immigration rhetoric in the final months of the campaign. Early analysis suggests the gambit hurt Republicans in suburban House races by turning off potential swing voters, while helping his base turn out in more conservative states.
Midterm election results are not always predictive of a president’s reelection prospects two years later. Presidents Bill Clinton and Obama bounced back from tough off-year defeats to easily win reelection, in part because they pivoted on issues and in part because voters historically view reelections as a choice between two candidates, not just referendums on a president’s performance.
The November results nonetheless provided stark warnings for Trump, with Democrats winning statewide races for governor and Senate in the upper Midwestern states that would have provided Democrats more than enough margin to win the presidency in 2016. One question of the research effort is how much Trump was to blame for those losses and how much was the fault of bad candidate matchups or Democratic spending advantages.
Of particular concern is a statistic Republican strategists have long blamed on an aversion to Trump’s disruptive and unconventional approach to the presidency: College-educated white women favored Democratic House candidates this year by a margin of 20 percentage points, compared with a seven-point spread for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to exit polls.
In Trump’s reelection campaign, the political effort is being helmed by Bill Stepien, the recently departed White House political director who oversaw Trump’s travel schedule and some of his messaging ahead of the midterms. Justin Clark, the White House director of public liaison, in charge of outreach efforts, has also moved to the Trump campaign effort. Both previously worked as advisers to former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R).
“I’ve talked to a few House members who are really upset about the fact that they don’t think there is any introspection, and the senators’ view is just hold on with white knuckles,” said a second Republican strategist who is preparing a 2020 messaging plan by polling Midwestern counties won by both Trump and Obama. “But the reality is that there is no finer political operative than Bill Stepien. He is studying this up and down, slicing the data and also the big picture.”
The Trump reelection campaign, which had $35 million in cash reserves at the end of September, has also been conducting exit interviews with Republican officials and campaign staffers involved in the midterm elections as it continues to plan for more hires in the new year, according to the person familiar with the reelection effort.
The polling to identify issues that can cross an increasingly polarized partisan divide is a typical step for a White House at this point in its first term. Republicans speak with admiration of Obama’s similar early research of 2012 swing states to identify messages and policies that would help him win.
Some have even speculated that Trump could help his reelection chances by coming to agreement on issues he has typically inflamed to cater to his most loyal supporters — striking an immigration deal with Democrats or resolving the trade brinkmanship with China.
“One model is 1984,” said Grover Norquist, the Republican activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform. “With two more years of economic growth, he could do especially well. The other model is Texas and Florida in 2018, where by reaching out to Hispanics, you can do better.”
Hispanics voted heavily for Democratic candidates in 2018, with high turnout and slightly larger margins, according to exit polls, raising the possibility that historical swing states such as Colorado will remain Democratic, while typically Republican Arizona could become a presidential battleground. But Republicans performed much better in Florida among the Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban communities, providing more than enough margin for the statewide Republican wins — and a template for the president, should he want to copy it.
RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has announced her own “deep data dive into our 2018 losses” and plans to make budgetary decisions next month about directing the party’s outreach efforts ahead of 2020.
“We will double down on building meaningful relationships with diverse communities and make sure they know the benefits of President Trump’s policies,” McDaniel said in a statement to The Washington Post. “These relationships aren’t built in a day. We made long-term investments and commitments to different communities over many election cycles because we recognize that future Republican victories will depend on their support.”
A universally acknowledged starting point for all the strategists working on the 2020 plans is a clear focus on disqualifying the eventual Democratic nominee in the eyes of key swing voters. Trump proved himself able to take on and diminish his opponents in the 2016 campaign, in the Republican primary and the general election against Clinton.
But, fortuitously for Trump, Clinton was a particularly unpopular opponent. Until Democrats pick their nominee, the full landscape on which the campaign will be fought will remain unknown.
“Republicans shouldn’t have more despair than they need, nor should Democrats have false hope,” said Mike DuHaime, a veteran strategist of several Republican presidential efforts who is not involved in 2020 planning. “One thing we have seen from the president is that he relishes that back-and-forth and certainly has a way of branding people and bringing out the worst in them.”