Phrases such as “Promises Made, Promises Kept,” once a cornerstone of the reelection campaign, have been subsumed by current events. Economic messaging still used by the campaign online, including boasts about low unemployment, is now woefully out of date.
The search for a slogan, which Trump confidants say he is likely to resolve in the coming weeks, is a symptom of the president’s larger problem: The booming economy that he assumed would be his chief argument for reelection has foundered for the moment, a casualty of a coronavirus crisis he initially downplayed and more recently has sought to move beyond.
On issues compelling to most Americans — health, economy and national unrest about police violence — Trump has offered few new proposals, relying on pointed warnings that Democrats and their liberal ideas would make the country worse. Asked on June 5 whether he had a plan to address systemic racism that has sent millions of Americans to the streets — some in view of the White House — he replied: “That’s what my plan is: We’re going to have the strongest economy in the world.”
The president and his top political advisers met June 4 to discuss how Trump should make his case and how he could improve his standing among voters, a person familiar with the meeting said. Participants included senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, campaign manager Brad Parscale, his recently elevated deputy Bill Stepien and campaign pollsters. Trump was also presented with “tough” swing-state polls from his political team in the Oval Office.
A larger group of aides then briefed Trump on their communications strategy — from how to sell the economic recovery to how to attack former vice president Joe Biden, according to people attending the meeting. Trump was described as in a good mood, forecasting that the economy would recover, people familiar with the larger RNC and campaign aides discussion said.
Some inside Trump’s inner circle say the “Keep America Great” reelection brand and the “Sleepy Joe” nickname for Biden are not likely to be as prominent in the future. “When the president decides, there will be a new slogan and there will be new ads,” said one Trump campaign adviser, who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway has used the slogan “Great American Comeback” — which the campaign has recently adopted as well — to incorporate the recent economic setbacks and thinks there should be additional branding of Biden that focuses more squarely on what she said was his “decades-long lackluster establishment record,” calling him “the Loch Ness monster of the Washington swamp.”
“With the exception of 1972, when President Nixon had decisive advantages over his opponent, the country has preferred the presidential candidate who is more optimistic and forward-looking,” Conway said, adding that Trump fit that bill. “We must be sure that our messaging, our messenger and our delivery systems project the same Trump-branded ‘joy on the job’ hunger and swagger of 2016.”
It is not just Trump’s own polls that show the president behind Biden, both nationally and in key swing states, with erosion among key Trump demographics like older and evangelical voters. A Washington Post average of public state polls since the beginning of March shows Trump trailing Biden by seven points in Pennsylvania, four points in Wisconsin, six points in Michigan, three points in Florida and five in Arizona — all states he won in 2016.
The struggle to define Trump’s reelection effort is a sharp departure from his first campaign for president, which was marked by biting branding that defined the election cycle. After a lifetime in business spent marking his brand on everything from hotels to steaks, he dispatched opponents with nicknames that stuck such as “Crooked Hillary” and “Lying Ted,” while electrifying his crowds with unforgettable phrases such as “Build the Wall” and “Drain the Swamp.”
So far this year, as multiple crises have forced Trump to shift direction, Republicans have reacted with concern and Democrats have celebrated the relative incoherence in Trump’s strategy.
“I don’t know what their core message is right now, because they are falling victim to having to respond every day to the crisis of the moment,” a former White House official said. “This is a big issue because if you go back to 2016, the main strength of the Trump campaign was a consistent message. It’s paradoxical because Trump is always all over the place, but there was a core that he was communicating.”
The “Keep America Great” reelection slogan dates back to January 2017, after his election as president but before his inauguration, when he proposed it in an interview with The Washington Post and told his lawyers to trademark the phrase.
“I am so confident that we are going to be, it is going to be so amazing. It’s the only reason I give it to you,” he said at the time.
But even before the crises hit this year, he was hosting debates about his best slogan, both in public at campaign rallies and in private meetings at the White House. Last July, during a meeting with campaign aides and political advisers, he expressed concern about switching from 2016’s “Make America Great Again” to “Keep America Great.”
“This better work, fellas,” he told others in the room about the slogan switch, according to two people with knowledge of the exchange. “I’d be the only idiot in the world to give up a brand like that and then lose.”
He also asked an aide to go into the Oval Office to get two hats. One said “Keep America Great” and one said “Keep America Great!” with an exclamation point. It was decided, people familiar with the meeting said, to not use the exclamation point on the hats, though the punctuation has remained on the campaign signage. One of the stated concerns was that former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a Trump antagonist, had used an exclamation point in his campaign logo in 2016.
“Everyone kind of agreed that ‘Keep America Great’ is the way to go,” said one of the people familiar with the conversation.
That was months before a viral pandemic, an economic collapse and a national outpouring of rage over racist policing practices reshaped the electoral battlefield and forced the campaign to reshuffle its stated strategy.
A planned advertising offensive against Biden, scheduled to begin in mid-April, was delayed by weeks to make way for positive television ads that defended Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic — an acknowledgment of the president’s vulnerability.
Since then, the Trump campaign has largely been playing defense by committing its television budget to promoting the president and his pandemic response and beating back Democratic advertising that charges Trump’s slow response made the pandemic worse.
Sixty-two percent of Trump’s nearly $6 million in campaign television ad spending this year has gone to ads that were primarily positive pitches, mostly around his leadership during the pandemic, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm. The other three spots, making up 38 percent of the spending, focused on Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, mostly for his past comments on China.
Though some of the positive spots include passing shots at Biden, other Democrats and the news media, they are more notable for the variety of language they use. They include “Keep America Great” branding, but one of them also includes a voice-over of Trump saying “Make America Great Again.” The most frequently aired spot calls Trump “a bull in a china shop” and uses a new set of tag lines, including “Mr. Nice Guy won’t cut it” and “Donald Trump gets it done.”
By contrast, Biden has stayed consistent since the start of the Democratic primaries with the central theme of his campaign: “Restoring the Soul of the Nation.” His advisers have privately begun to make light of Trump’s attempts label their candidate.
Biden’s top political strategist, Mike Donilon, said Trump’s inability to accomplish the planned shift from “Make America Great Again” to “Keep America Great” is a perilous sign for the Republican’s campaign.
“He is scrambling. He has said something about ‘transition to greatness,’ which is an admission of failure,” Donilon said. “There is no message from Donald Trump. What there is, is a demolition derby.”
Trump’s campaign advisers are banking on an economic recovery in the coming months to erase this deficit and resolve any confusion about the campaign’s message. The president was ebullient June 5 when the Labor Department announced a surprise gain of 2.5 million jobs in May, against predictions of giant losses.
“The president is extremely confident that the economy will rebound quickly and forcefully. It will make his original economic argument even stronger,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said. “The Democrats view economic recovery as bad politics for them.”
The campaign also has been working to soften the edges of Trump’s more aggressive statements about the need to “dominate” the protesters causing chaos on the streets. Two days after police used force on Trump’s behalf to clear a plaza outside the White House of peaceful protesters, the campaign posted a video called “Healing, Not Hatred” that coupled memorial images to George Floyd with words of sympathy Trump delivered May 30 after the launch of a U.S. space capsule.
The ad has been removed by Facebook, Instagram and Twitter following a complaint from the copyright holder of an image.
“We support the right of peaceful protesters and we hear their pleas,” Trump says in the video, which uses outtakes from the speech he gave at Kennedy Space Center. “The voices of law-abiding citizens must be heard, and heard very loudly.” But later he returned to encouraging dominance by law enforcement in the streets and retweeted a tweet casting doubt on Floyd’s character.
In the president’s online presentation, meantime, the past few destructive months appear not to have happened. Training materials for Trump volunteers promote the idea that “the president has created a strong, still growing economy,” and a section of his website devoted to his accomplishments is filled with out-of-date economic statistics from before the pandemic, such as “1 million more job openings than unemployed people in the U.S.” and “the unemployment rate has fallen to the lowest point in 50 years.”
In some ways, Trump’s campaign will be in uncharted territory, no matter the message, as he faces a summer filled with double-digit unemployment, protests and other societal factors beyond his control, allies say.
“It’s an understatement that Trump hasn’t been perfect. But there’s a lot out there right now that is feeding into the discord,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said. “In 1968, the country was going through a lot of upheaval. These things happen in a democracy.”