President Trump and his advisers are launching a behemoth 2020 campaign operation combining his raw populist message from 2016 with a massive data-gathering and get-out-the-vote push aimed at dwarfing any previous presidential reelection effort, according to campaign advisers, White House aides, Republican officials and others briefed on the emerging strategy.
The president’s strategy, however, relies on a risky and relatively narrow path for victory, hinged on demonizing Trump’s eventual opponent and juicing turnout among his most avid supporters in Florida, Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest — the same areas that won him the White House but where his popularity has waned since he was elected. Some advisers are particularly concerned about the president’s persistent unpopularity among female and suburban voters, and fear it will be difficult to replicate the outcome of 2016 without former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as a foil.
Campaign officials have also begun preparing for attacks on any politically damaging findings by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But even as the Mueller probe, congressional investigations and threats of impeachment swirl around him, Trump is starting his reelection bid with the full support of the Republican National Committee, a far more sophisticated data machine than his first election had and a party that has molded itself in his image while looking past his combative and incendiary style.
The reelection effort has already raised more than $100 million, with millions of small-dollar donors and wealthy supporters poised to add to that record haul. Officials said the operation is targeting 23 million key voters in swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. The campaign also plans to enlist more than 1 million volunteers using a vast database of supporters who have attended Trump’s raucous political rallies over the past two years, officials said.
The president will kick off a heavy rotation of such rallies in battleground states in coming weeks, officials said. The campaign, with headquarters in Arlington, Va., has already announced a national press team and, one official said, plans to create a unit for the sole purpose of waging war against the news media.
“We are creating the largest campaign operation in American history, an unstoppable apparatus that will follow and implement President Trump’s strategy to great effect,” campaign manager Brad Parscale said. “On every metric, we are on track to outpace our 2016 numbers by many multiples.”
But Democrats — fresh off a wave midterm election that brought them control of the House — say Trump is a severely weakened incumbent with a tired anti-immigrant message who has alienated the female and suburban voters who will decide the election. They see his 2016 electoral college victory as a fluke and his approval numbers, consistently stuck in the low 40s, as an opportunity. More than a dozen Democratic candidates are already competing for a chance to make him a one-term president.
“Trump is weak,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser at MoveOn. “And he’s doubling down on his shrinking base. Independents have left him, women have left him. . . . I don’t think you would see this many people jumping in if they didn’t think Trump could be beat.”
Capping a week in which Trump’s former campaign manager was sentenced to prison on tax fraud and other crimes, the president traveled Friday to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for a weekend retreat with hundreds of Republican donors. Standing in a tent perched atop the resort’s pool on Friday night, the president lashed into Democrats, trumpeted his accomplishments and riffed for more than an hour to more than 300 in attendance — and none of his domestic woes came up, attendees said. The retreat was slated to bring in $7 million for the president’s joint reelection effort with the RNC, one official said.
Trump recently received an extensive slide-show briefing on the campaign effort in the White House residence and has taken intense interest in the details of the battle to come, advisers say. He regularly quizzes advisers about potential foes — such as Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former vice president Joe Biden — and about individual battleground states, such as Pennsylvania and Florida. He also has asked aides about the perceived popularity of his positions, such as his vow to remove troops from Syria, and is an avid consumer of polling data, advisers say.
At the Florida fundraiser, Trump said that Warren had crumbled under his attacks and that he wanted to save his most withering lines about other Democrats for later in the primary, two attendees said.
Trump has sought to build a 2020 messaging campaign around the idea of “promises kept” — replacing his 2016 “Make America Great Again” slogan with “Keep America Great!” and telling his supporters to chant “Finish the wall” instead of “Build the wall,” even though no section of his promised border wall has actually been built.
The campaign and Republican allies have pointed to recent Democratic proposals for expanding Medicare and investing in green energy projects as a chance to frame the 2020 race as a referendum on what they view as socialist policies. Many Republicans believe painting Trump’s opponents as extremists provides the clearest path to his reelection.
“If there’s a head wind pushing, it’s probably pushing the Democrat Party further to the radical left, rather than pushing the president into a one-term [presidency],” said Bryan Lanza, an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign and transition. “Nothing’s really changed for us. It’s still going to be the same binary choice between a Republican set of principles as opposed to a socialist Democratic set of principles. And we’ll gladly take that choice.”
A 10-person war room at the RNC has been working to document Democrats’ positions on the Green New Deal, Medicare-for-all, abortion and U.S.-Israel relations, according to two Republican Party officials. Trackers from the conservative super PAC America Rising are camped out in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, helping to create opposition research material on each of the Democratic contenders, said Sarah Dolan, America Rising’s executive director.
“We’re going to be hitting these candidates from the left and the right,” she said. “We want to create as much chaos as possible.”
Dan Eberhart, a prominent GOP donor, said that “the more divided and extreme the Democratic field is, the better for Trump. Right now they are trying to outdo each other with populist ideas from the far left. But Trump needs to resist the urge to stick his fingers in the Democratic primary waters by commenting daily.”
Harris has gotten a lot of attention from many Republicans, and Trump’s advisers say he is watching her campaign closely.
“Is there any [Democrat] I’m scared of? The answer is no,” said Brian O. Walsh, who runs the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action. “Because all of them are going to have to go through what I call the liberal gauntlet.”
Not every Republican is so confident. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican moderate who is considering a primary race against Trump, told CBS News last month that Trump looks “pretty weak in the general election.”
The RNC took the unusual step of voting unanimously to pledge its “undivided support” of Trump during its winter meeting in January, and party officials have been actively pointing to the president’s high poll numbers among Republican voters to scare off primary challengers.
Campaign officials are calling state party leaders across the country to ensure that the 2020 convention is an unimpeded coronation of Trump — and are seeking to install allies in delegate and chair roles. Campaign advisers say they have taken note of incumbent presidents who lost because they did not have the party machine fully behind them.
Hogan and other potential candidates are watching to see if Trump will maintain that support after Mueller wraps up his investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Russia’s election interference effort. The probe has already led to convictions and guilty pleas from several of the president’s 2016 aides, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort.
Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report, said Trump will probably need to expand his support beyond his base and win back moderates and independent voters who sided with Democrats during last year’s midterms.
Focusing on divisive issues such as immigration and his proposed border wall won’t help with that, she said, noting that Trump’s approval ratings have remained below 50 percent throughout his presidency. During the midterms, Trump frequently did not follow the urging of many Republicans that he focus on the growing economy; instead, he injected polarizing issues such as birthright citizenship into the debate.
“Why is he spending time leaning into an issue that has a 60 percent disapproval rate?” Walter said. “It’s a real lack of discipline.”
Campaign officials said they follow Trump’s lead on messaging.
Several GOP officials pointed to Trump’s boisterous and overflowing campaign rally last month in El Paso as evidence of his political strength heading into 2020. Of several thousand people who registered for the rally, about half were registered Democrats, 70 percent were Hispanic and 25 percent didn’t vote in 2016, Parscale said.
The campaign has made Trump’s rallies a centerpiece of its data effort, aiming to turn rallygoers into volunteers, donors and recruiters for the president’s cause.
Political operatives from both parties have said the map of battleground states has contracted since 2016, with Ohio seen as more comfortably Republican and Nevada likely to go to the Democrats. Running the table in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — states where Democrats rebounded last year after losing to Trump in 2016 — will be a top priority for the president, Lanza said.
Trump and his allies are also focusing on Florida, where they see an opportunity to cut into Democrats’ lead with Hispanic voters. Trump spoke to a mostly Hispanic crowd when he visited Miami last month to call for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to resign.
Trump’s campaign began running Spanish-language ads on Facebook last week, primarily targeting Florida voters, that amplified his message about Maduro and socialism.
Dawsey reported from Palm Beach, Fla.