The only person in the world who doesn’t realize that Donald Trump is getting his ass kicked is—of course—Donald Trump. Joe Biden is winning by more, and in more places, than anyone thought possible just a few months ago. Things seem to be getting worse, not better, for the president. There has been a lot of credulous and, frankly, amusing reporting about the struggles within the Trump campaign to adjust to this new political reality. The Washington Post among others has detailed a supposedly roiling debate in the Trump campaign over whether to keep calling Biden “Sleepy Joe” or pivot to “Corrupt Joe.”
Trumpworld is filled with so many people who hate each other (and themselves) that it is always hard to distinguish facts from the feuds. However, I think the chaos and backbiting detailed in the press obscure the fact that the Trump campaign is in fact beginning to execute a plan to win the election. It is not a great plan, it is certainly not being executed by the best and the brightest, and is frequently undermined when the candidate opens his mouth, but it is nevertheless a plan. And after what happened in 2016, it would be foolish to assume that Trump can’t rebound from his abysmal position and stumble into a second term.
When I’m trying to understand what a campaign is thinking, I always apply two maxims. First, follow the money. Tweets are free. Ads cost a lot of money. Campaigns only run ads that are backed by polling and data. Second, ads released with great fanfare are usually designed to shape media narratives, not to persuade voters. Therefore, the ads that campaigns want to fly under the radar tend to be the most suggestive of what they believe internally will have the greatest influence on the electorate.
In the past week, the Trump campaign quietly began airing two ads that speak volumes about its plan to win. One ad running in the Philadelphia media market hits Biden for his role in passing the 1994 crime bill and says he “destroyed millions of Black lives.” The campaign is also airing a Spanish-language ad in multiple markets that falsely claims Biden is in cognitive decline and not up to being president. Notably neither of these ads mentions or shows Trump outside of the legally mandated disclaimer at the end. The Trump campaign isn’t trying to grow his support among Black and Latino voters—even they understand that is a fool’s errand. Instead they want to narrow margins among Black and Latino voters by diminishing Biden’s support in those communities. In other words, they want to diminish overall Black and Latino turnout to make it easier to win the election with only white voters. This strategy isn’t crazy. According to the New York Times/Sienna College polls of battleground states, Biden’s recent surge has come despite relative weakness among Black and Latino voters. Biden’s margin with Latino voters is the same as Hillary Clinton’s margin in the 2016 election and he is three points behind Clinton’s margin with Black voters. It would not surprise me if the Trump campaign targeted similar efforts at young voters in the coming weeks to exploit lingering resentment over the outcome of the primary. In a close race, reducing turnout among these groups by a point or two could be decisive.
The second part of Trump’s plan is embedded in the Spanish language ad. The Trump campaign wants to convince some portion of the public that Biden is too old and confused to be president. Trump aides have been circling around this argument for months (with help near the end of the primary from elements of the left) which is why they are already including video footage of Biden misspeaking in ads that are putatively about other subjects, like China. Once again, the Trump campaign isn’t trying to increase Trump’s vote total, just shrink Biden’s. Trump’s failed response to the pandemic and the resulting economic recession, along with his generally erratic behavior in the face of a crisis, has driven a lot of voters who were skeptical of both candidates to support Biden. A smear campaign to paint Biden as cognitively unfit aims to push those voters towards a third party candidate, or, more likely, to give up and sit out the election.
The fatal flaw in this part of the plan was evident earlier this week when Biden addressed reporters with more clarity and coherence than Trump has ever demonstrated. Likewise, his message to Black voters clashes badly with his more public messages like tweeting “LAW & ORDER” for no reason, or trying to increase housing discrimination in the suburbs. However, it is important to remember that the voters who will decide the election are ones that are paying the least attention to politics. These voters are unlikely to ever see much of Biden outside of the ads the campaigns pay to place on their televisions and their phones. As of right now at least, Trump and his allies have more money to buy more ads to paint this picture. The Trump campaign had clearly hoped to run against someone they could paint as radical socialist in thrall to Hollywood, the Squad, and ANTIFA. Biden has been so immune to this caricature that even Trump was recently forced to admit on Fox that Biden is not “radical.” Therefore the ancillary benefit of the cognitive decline strategy is to at least paint Biden as weak enough to be led by the elements of the party that the right loves to caricature.
The final part of Trump’s strategy is to dip into the old Republican playbook and prevent as many people as possible from voting. He will benefit once again from tried and true tactics like voter ID laws, but the centerpiece of the strategy is an assault on mail voting. Step one is to prevent as many people as possible from having the option to vote by mail. This is why Trump and Senate Republicans would rather sink the economy than accede to Democratic demands to include a robust vote-by-mail provision in the next economic-stimulus package. And it’s why the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee recently sued the state of Pennsylvania to stop it from implementing its current plan to expand vote by mail. Step two is to discredit the integrity of absentee ballots—or at least the ones that he and his own supporters don’t mail in. Many have viewed Trump’s disinformation campaign against mail-in voting as an effort to pre-emptively cast doubt on the results of the election. That is undoubtedly part of his motivation, but he and his campaign also hope to affect the results. For instance: the malevolence of election officials, particularly in the South, has created a legacy of mistrust of mail voting among a large number of voters, particularly Black voters.
These suppression tactics are much more dangerous against the backdrop of a lethal virus that has spread fastest in urban areas that drive Democratic turnout. The prospect of waiting eight hours to vote and at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 could prove to be a powerful disincentive to anyone skeptical of politics.
Trump spent last weekend tweeting racist videos while golfing during a pandemic, so I recognize that trying to find some strategic signal in the incredibly absurd noise emanating from him and his campaign probably seems silly. And if the pandemic persists, the economy craters further, and Trump continues to self-sabotage, maybe it will prove to be silly. But there is a real probability that the race will narrow. If that happens, these tactics backed by his endless resources and the abuse of his official powers to help his campaign could matter. That’s why we need to at least know what they are trying to accomplish and be prepared to respond.