Frank Luntz: Trump’s campaign is the worst I’ve ever seen

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The temptation here is to say, “We’ll see what voters think about that on November 3.” If Trump’s all-base-all-the-time strategy succeeds in bringing out Fox viewers and talk-radio fans and assorted other working-class whites in numbers that obliterate Biden’s polling advantage, he’ll seem crazy like a fox. In an instant, the conventional wisdom will shift from “What the hell is this guy doing?” to “I can’t believe we underestimated this guy again. He understands the electorate better than anyone else.”

But if the polls are right and he loses, especially if he loses big, the view that he ran an historically bad campaign will be commonly held across all demographics, including the GOP. Even populist righties, the audience he’s forever pandering to, will find it convenient to believe that Trump lost because he chose the wrong strategy (to the extent that they’re not all-in on the idea that Biden cheated). That’s because populists will be scrambling to explain away his defeat in terms of anything *except* that populism might be unpopular. “Biden cheated!” Or “the media defeated Trump!” Or “he sent too many tweets!” Or, yes, even “he ran a garbage campaign! A smarter populist will win next time.”

And you know what? A smarter populist might.

The point isn’t that Trump has no chance to win because he’s run a bad campaign. He does have a chance. The point is that he’d have a much better chance if his campaign messaging hadn’t been so confounding. He might squeak through with something like 275 electoral votes, as it is. But a president who oversaw a gangbusters economy, who has some real foreign-policy victories to boast of, and who could have parlayed the burst in public support for political leaders during the early days of the pandemic into more durable popularity if he had approached the crisis more shrewdly shouldn’t be struggling to get to 270. He should be the favorite, comfortably. Frank Luntz:

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“I’ve never seen a campaign more mis-calibrated than the Trump campaign. Frankly, his staff ought to be brought up on charges of political malpractice,” Luntz said.

“It is the worst campaign I’ve ever seen and I’ve been watching them since 1980. They’re on the wrong issues. They’re on the wrong message. They’ve got their heads up their assess. … Your damn job is to get your candidate to talk about things that are relevant to the people you need to reach. And if you can’t do your damn job then get out.”…

“Nobody cares about Hunter Biden … why is [Trump] spending all his time on him?” Luntz asked. “Hunter Biden does not help put food on the table. Hunter Biden does not help anyone get a job. Hunter Biden does not provide health care or solve COVID. And Donald Trump spends all of his time focused on that and nobody cares.”

Luntz is being kind to the president in blaming his staff for his poor messaging, as if Bill Stepien has any control over what Trump’s going to be talking about from moment to moment.

I have yet to see a piece that does this in a comprehensive way, but at some point after the election someone will compile the definitive list of all of the policy positions in 2020 which Trump insisted on taking the minority side on. Whatever the big-picture policy debate du jour happens to be, particularly when it involves COVID, it’s a safe bet that he’s ceding the middle to Biden by aligning himself with the view favored by 40-45 percent of the public. Masks? The public’s all-in but Trump remains ambivalent. Reopening the country for business? The public wanted to go slow but Trump didn’t. Race relations? The public wanted a conciliatory approach to the BLM protests this summer but Trump wasn’t interested. A new round of coronavirus stimulus? Actually, Trump is aligned with the public on that — but only recently and very belatedly, long past the point when he should have been throttling Senate Republicans to get a deal done. Ross Douthat flagged that today in a piece titled, “Trump Is Giving Up.”

This context suggested an obvious fall campaign strategy: Push more relief money into the economy, try to ostentatiously take the pandemic seriously and promise the country that mask-wearing and relief dollars are a bridge to a vaccine and normalcy in 2021.

Instead Trump has ended up with the opposite approach. He mostly ignored the negotiations over relief money for months, engaging only at a point where he had become so politically weak that both Republican deficit hawks (or the born-again variety, at least) and Democratic free-spenders assume he’ll soon be gone. And meanwhile he’s let himself be drawn ever deeper — especially since his own encounter with the disease — into the libertarian style of Covid-19 contrarianism, which argues that we’re overtesting, overreacting and probably close to herd immunity anyway.

All he had to do was be aggressive on an economic rescue and aggressive on containing the virus and he’d be golden right now. Especially since, even more so than Barack Obama, Trump can trust that his base would have followed him no matter what. The grand irony of him obsessing about Hunter Biden’s laptop is that no other president in modern times has had more leeway to ignore his fans’ hobbyhorses. He could have played straight for the center against Sleepy Joe, knowing that MAGA fans would have turned out in droves anyway. Instead he just flails at whatever target’s in front of him on a given day. Anthony Fauci, a figure almost uniquely trusted on handling COVID, said something mildly critical of him on “60 Minutes” so Trump took to attacking him yesterday. Susan Collins, a vulnerable incumbent in the fight of her life, said she wouldn’t vote for Amy Coney Barrett on process grounds — a completely meaningless vote — and Trump lashed out at her too.

There’s no strategy to any of this. The “strategy” is simply Trump believing that his instincts are unerring, even though all his instincts ever do is compel him to keep pandering to his base. Even Fox News hosts like Steve Doocy have taken to nudging him lately to stop talking about whatever Fox is covering and start talking more about the economy. That’s what Luntz means by a bad campaign. You know you’re running a bad one when the people from whom you’re taking your cues are telling you, “You probably shouldn’t be taking so many cues from me.”

There’s also a lot of crap like this lately, more so than usual. When the president openly orders the Justice Department to investigate his opponent, when he mocks a governor who just dodged a kidnapping and murder plot aimed at her, do you suppose that’s a net winner or net loser for him electorally? He’s losing some votes, I suspect, among people who prefer him to Biden on policy but think “no, sorry, too far” as they drink in this repulsive spectacle:

Whose votes is he winning by doing that? Who wasn’t going to vote for Trump before but now feels compelled to because he’s been even more boorish and irresponsible than usual lately?

It’s hard to convince the people to whom Trump is pandering that he’s making a mistake by doing so, so consider one other aspect of the bad campaign. This has nothing to do with Trump’s message. It’s a simple numbers question: How did he go from a gigantic fundraising advantage against Biden in the first months of the campaign from having to go dark in some battleground states in the home stretch because he just doesn’t have the bread to stay on the air there?

President Donald Trump’s sprawling political operation has raised well over $1 billion since he took the White House in 2017 — and set a lot of it on fire.

Trump bought a $10 million Super Bowl ad when he didn’t yet have a challenger. He tapped his political organization to cover exorbitant legal fees related to his impeachment. Aides made flashy displays of their newfound wealth — including a fleet of luxury vehicles purchased by Brad Parscale, his former campaign manager.

Meanwhile, a web of limited liability companies hid more than $310 million in spending from disclosure, records show.

There’s a longer list of seemingly wasteful expenditures towards the end of the story at the link. If he falls just short in Pennsylvania, he, Stepien, and Parscale will be asked to explain why they didn’t have the cash reserves they needed at the end of the race to make a more aggressive final push there. What will they say?

If there’s no obvious answer then that’s a bad campaign. Maybe not a *losing* campaign, but certainly a bad one. And that’ll be a universally held view within the Republican Party, including among Trump’s own campaign staffers, if he doesn’t pull a rabbit out of the hat on November 3.

I’ll leave you with this, which is a small thing but also evidence that neither Trump nor his most loyal enablers are fully in touch with the reality of the election. Needless to say, he has zero chance of winning New York so why waste even a minute entertaining the idea? You don’t hear Biden insisting that he’s going to make a play for Alabama or Wyoming. If it were a wink-wink joke, that would be one thing, but Trump tweeted about competing in New York (and California and Illinois) earlier today and Brian Kilmeade’s question to him seems in earnest. The point, it seems, is simply to create an alternate reality for Fox viewers in which Trump is doing so well that it’s conceivable he’d take a shot at NY, never mind that he’s outgunned financially in the battleground states that he actually needs to win. He’s run a bad campaign, he has practically no shot at winning any solid blue state, but both he and Fox need to convince supporters that he’s doing much better than he is and the “we might win New York” nonsense is part of that. If nothing else, it’ll make it a bit easier to claim he was cheated if he loses the election. How could a man who was running a campaign so strong that even New York was in play have possibly lost fair and square?

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