Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” Follow him on Twitter at @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
President Trump will try to light a spark under his 2020 campaign as he kicks off his re-election bid Tuesday night in Florida. Coming after reports of terrible internal polling on key battleground states, the President will officially begin the long and grueling process of doing whatever it takes to keep the office for four more years.
Although it is usually difficult to see any logic behind the daily chaos from this White House, the President’s campaign has already revealed the rough outlines of a game plan. For all the tumult, there are five keys that the President will likely be counting on to defeat the Democratic nominee in 2020.
Trump’s base will remain his central political weapon. Throughout his presidency, President Trump has consistently played to his most loyal supporters to make sure that they never veer from their political home. He has used his anti-immigration platform as a political energy drink to ensure his raucous crowd never quiets down.
Nonetheless, the laggard polls would suggest some have become disenchanted with the Trump presidency. Now, if he wants four more years in office, he will need the full commitment of his faithful supporters.
If he can rally his base, it will fill the crowds of Trump’s campaign events and continue to share through word of mouth why others need to remain on the Trump bandwagon. It will help organize and mobilize voters and remind any Republican politician who dares to think of criticizing the President that there will be hell to pay in future elections.
The base, which loves the President unlike almost any constituency has loved an elected official in some time, will turn out to vote in the crucial battleground states and possibly tip those contests to the GOP.
Partisan loyalty from Republicans
The base though is not enough. The President is counting on Republicans to vote Republican regardless of what they think of him. He will conduct a campaign that appeals to partisan passions so that Republican voters only think “red or blue” when making their final selection rather than “Trump or no Trump.” Essential to this strategy will be the demonization of the Democratic Party as an unacceptable choice for any true Republican.
Trump will talk endlessly about socialism. In some states, the campaign will home in on abortion as yet another way to make the decision black or white. Regardless of who is at the top of the Democratic ticket, Trump will call them far left socialists and abortionists. On Fox News, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell previewed this type of labeling when he called statehood for Puerto Rico and voting rights socialism. We can expect Trump to use the same tactic.
Control the news agenda
The President’s most potent skill is holding the focus of the news media. Rarely have we seen a president with the capacity to move news conversation in a particular direction within seconds. Television, print, and social media all are constantly pushed and pulled by his most recent controversial action or tweet. I have witnessed many instances on television sets when entire stories are instantaneously killed because the President did or said something more newsworthy.
Trump is always willing to “go there,” so others simply can’t compete. Democrats will struggle to keep attention on their candidate and their issues. They will be in a defensive position, responding to what the President does and says rather than talking about what they believe is important (and politically beneficial). A recent story in the Washington Post reported that Democrats are already frustrated that their issues are getting short shrift.
The President has even said that he will be live-tweeting during the Democratic debates next week, meaning he will insert himself into the event and possibly into the media discussion.
As we saw in 2020, character assassination will be at the heart of Trump’s enterprise. He will use nicknames to mock his opponents and frame their images among voters. He will float conspiracy theories and spread disinformation to raise doubts about them. We have seen hints of this already, with Trump reportedly indicating that it would be appropriate to have Joe Biden investigated by the Department of Justice. And we all remember the President’s efforts to color the voters’ perceptions of Hillary Clinton with chants of “Lock her up!”
In attacking his rivals’ characters, the President’s goal would be twofold. Not only will he try to make his opponents less likeable, but he will also attempt to depress the overall vote by making the campaign so ugly that some voters who may have otherwise voted Democrat will tune out. Combined with real voting roadblocks that have been put into place in recent years, Trump could undercut the advantage Democrats derive from high rates of voting.
And finally, there is the economy. Although it is no longer clear whether a strong economy will be more important than popular disapproval of President Trump – or whether current economic conditions will continue – low rates of unemployment certainly can’t hurt an incumbent candidate. He will keep reminding voters that many Americans have jobs and can count on a paycheck in the near future. We are far enough away from the Obama presidency that Trump will be able to make a credible claim that he deserves at least part of the credit for the employment millions of Americans are currently enjoying.
That’s Trump game plan in a nutshell. As his reelection campaign gets underway, his strategy seems to be not to focus too heavily on policy – in contrast to some of his opponents like Sen. Elizabeth Warren – but to focus on anything that could help him retain power so that he then use a second term to transform the country.