Over many years, I have been an advisor and consultant to scores of municipal, state and federal candidates. I have learned that there are two kinds of winning candidates. Those who win on their own merits and those who win because the opponent loses. There is a distinct difference.
If a candidate wins because the opponent was unpopular, fell into scandal, campaigned badly or otherwise blew a winning election, it is often good fortune – not strategy – that enabled an opponent to win in what is often called an “upset” – or less flatteringly, a “fluke” — election.
When up for re-election, they face two choices. They can assume that their first victory was all of their own doing – their strategies, style, issues — and repeat what they did the first time. Or they recognize the uniqueness – and good fortune – of their first win and work on a different strategy for the re-election campaign.
Obviously, if a person wins an election there is a strong egocentric belief in their wisdom. However, candidates who do not recognize that the first win was as much the debilities of the opponent as their own personal appeal have a problem. Candidates who win because of the failures of their opponent tend to reprise their first campaign and often lose their re-election effort.
This should be a warning to President Trump. Did he win the election on his own, or did the Democrats and Hillary Clinton snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? There is every reason to believe that it was the latter that took place in 2016.
By any measure, Clinton should have won that election. That is at least one of the reasons why it was reported as a slam dunk for the Democrat candidate. And it was most certainly the reason why the nation was shocked on election night to find Trump as the victor – including no few Republicans.
While Trump had a number of normally fatal controversial and scandalous issues, he was facing a candidate who was carrying almost as much personal baggage. Clinton was also a terrible campaigner. She had been politically wounded by the surprising power of the Bernie Sanders challenge that further fractured the Democratic Party. The email investigation did not help.
Put simply, Trump’s flaws and weaknesses as a candidate were trumped – figuratively and literally – by Trump. Still, Clinton won the popular vote by the widest margin ever recorded by a candidate who fell short in the Electoral College. It is an important reality despite the accusations of vote fraud and the fact that the popular vote win for Clinton came primarily from California and New York – where her margins of victory were unprecedented for a losing candidate.
It appears — as of today — that Trump is heading into his 2020 re-election campaign with the same strategies, issues and personal style he displayed in 2016. Given his controversial pugnacious style, it was largely believed – and even stated by Trump – that he could or would “pivot” to become more presidential. He could have done that without surrendering any of his strength or determination, but he did not.
The problem for Trump is that it is not likely that he will again face the perfect political storm that capsized the Clinton campaign. He is going to have to change his tactics – or more specifically, his style. How and how much cannot be determined, but he runs a very high risk of losing in 2020 if he sees it as simply a re-run of his successful 2016 campaign.
Fair or not, Trump has picked up a bit more baggage during his presidency. His propensity to say things that are provably untrue has undermined his credibility – an important asset for a politician. His tendency to make audacious statements and pick petty fights with insignificant critics is wearing thin among the less committed Trump supporters. He has failed to reel-in on several of his hallmark issues, such as repealing and replacing Obamacare. His proposals for immigration reform that would abolish chain migration, birthright citizenship and sanctuary cities — and would stop the flood of migrants illegally crossing the southern American border — have not even advanced as legislative proposals. His “wall” is yet to be built.
As was the case in 2016, it is the Trump personality that has been the problem. Yes, he won the presidency, but I am among those who believe that it cost him the popular vote – which was trending to the GOP since 2010. It is the primary reason that Democrats were able to not only gain control of the House, but to do so by a significant margin. That comeback by Democrats – and especially the most radical of the lot – should be a “yuge” red flag for Trump and the Republicans.
Trump’s current polling numbers – for whatever they are worth at any moment – have remained pretty much the same. He kept his base, made the left-wing Democrat base go bonkers and have the folks in the middle still undecided. Though some polls showing Trump losing to Biden or one of the other Democrat candidates, such head-to-head polling at this time is worthless.
No credible pundit, no professional political consultant, no objective reporter and no political wonk would give these “horse race” polls even one moment of credible consideration — although you can count on the news media to use the polls to fill air and space in support of their biased narratives. What they report today, however, will mean nothing tomorrow – and certainly not in the fall of 2020.
The one thing that has not changed over the years is the Trump personality. It is, in my judgment, his Achilles Heel. He squeaked out a victory in 2016 thanks to Democrat flubbing it. The GOP lost the House in 2016 because Democrats were able to make Trump’s style and personality the deciding factor – not the issues, upon which Democrats cannot win. It would not hurt Trump to occasionally put the velvet glove on the steel fist. He would be more effective if he used pointed humor in response to criticism. He needs to stop giving his critics ammunition. He needs to do a better job of selling his achievements – and not just the economy.
I offer up this analysis not as a bashing criticism of Trump, but out of a desire to see him re-elected – and to see Republicans take back the House. Amidst all the controversy, chaos and contentiousness, Trump’s election has done more to advance conservative governance than any President since Reagan – and in some cases, Trump has outdone even Reagan. I am willing to look past the personality to the all-important issues. I am just not sure a lot of other Americans are willing to do the same.
So, there ‘tis.