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What Have Trump’s Rallies Accomplished?

What Have Trump’s Rallies Accomplished?

Friday, 21 June, 2019 - 08:30

Let's get one thing out of the way: There's nothing wrong with President Donald Trump designating Tuesday night's rally as his “official” campaign kickoff. Trump is unusual in that he formally launched his re-election campaign at the beginning of his presidency, and in holding an endless series of political rallies. But the only difference here between Trump and other first-term presidents is one of strategy. They're all running for re-election from day one, and many (okay, practically all) of their public appearances are staged with that in mind.

That’s mostly a good thing. Presidents should work hard to be re-elected in their first term. It introduces healthy incentives: Smart presidents will lead with an eye toward winning over new voters and thus strive to govern responsibly. So there's nothing wrong with Trump overtly campaigning from day one, or with arbitrarily designating one of his rallies as the beginning of a new phase of that campaign.

No, the question is what Trump has accomplished with all of his non-stop electioneering. And the answer to that is pretty simple: Bupkis. Nada. Nothing.

All the available data suggests that Trump is an unusually unpopular president who matches up badly against Democrats in hypothetical elections (with the usual caveats about early polling). This despite having a number of “fundamentals” on his side, including relative peace and prosperity.

It's possible that he'd be in even worse shape if it wasn't for all his campaigning. But I think the opposite is more likely true. The fundamental strategy Trump has pursued since his election has been to pitch virtually everything he does to his strongest supporters and depend on rank partisanship to keep other Republicans with him. He has hardly even attempted to reach out to those who opposed him in 2016.

Even for presidents who were elected by a wide margin, that's a foolish strategy. It deliberately squanders the powerful symbolic asset of the Oval Office. That’s why normal presidents wait until late in their terms to begin overt electioneering: It gives them more time to act as the leader of the entire nation, and thereby encourage new voters to think of them someone they can root for. It's an obvious way to win votes beyond their strongest supporters. And it's something Trump has never even tried to do.

That’s all the more insensible because Trump won without a plurality, depending on an unusual vote distribution that may prove impossible to duplicate. In other words, no president in at least a century has had a greater need to win over new voters, and yet no president has had so little apparent interest in doing so.

Perhaps he'll win anyway. Campaign strategy and tactics are overrated in presidential elections, after all, and even if Trump’s plan is counterproductive it might not be decisive. But it's very hard to see any political benefit from what he's done, and quite possible to see it hurting his chances in 2020.


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