Bernie Sanders is “the nutty professor”; Elizabeth Warren is “Pocahontas”; Beto O’Rourke’s hand movements are “crazy”. Donald Trump is already taking pot shots at his potential opponents in the 2020 presidential election, evoking memories of his chaotic 2016 campaign with its raucous rallies and taunting tweets.
But something will be different this time. The US president is now backed by a Republican party reshaped in his image, a huge war chest and a newly sophisticated political data operation. Whereas some regard him as an accidental president who fluked his way to the White House in 2016, his lieutenants hope that, with all the advantages of incumbency, nothing will be left to chance in securing a second term.
“The thing that Democrats need to worry about is that Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination and general election with virtually no campaign,” said Rick Tyler, communications director for Ted Cruz in the Republican primaries that year. “I know this to be true because we had the most organized campaign by far.
They didn’t have a data operation. They didn’t have any money. They were so behind the eight ball and they won. Now they’ve got people, tonnes of money and the whole Republican National Committee (RNC) apparatus behind them.”
Trump apparently craves a second term. He filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run in 2020 just hours after he was inaugurated and, as the midterms demonstrated, he appears to be itching to get back on the road. His re-election campaign has raised more than $100m, a massive amount at such an early stage. It has sent out 15 fundraising emails so far in March alone with subject headings such as “President Trump will VETO”, “Win dinner with President Trump” and “FAKE NEWS”.
Then there is data, which has been key to campaigns since Barack Obama’s ascent. How significant Cambridge Analytica, which gained access to information on 50 million Facebook users as a way to influence their behavior, and Russian operatives were in Trump’s victory over the well-oiled Hillary Clinton machine remains hotly disputed.
Trump himself preferred to credit Brad Parscale, a bearded, six-foot, eight-inch tall digital guru, to such an extent that he has been named campaign manager for the 2020 effort. Despite never running a campaign before, Parscale has hit the ground running. He told the Washington Post: “We are creating the largest campaign operation in American history, an unstoppable apparatus that will follow and implement President Trump’s strategy to great effect. On every metric, we are on track to outpace our 2016 numbers by many multiples.”
Based in Arlington, Virginia, the campaign will attempt to marry the old and the new. Trump will hold rallies in battleground states, demonstrating the enduring power of live performance and word of mouth. But the rallies will also help form databases to turn attendees into volunteers, donors and recruiters for Trump’s re-election.
The Post added: “Officials said the operation is targeting 23 million key voters in swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. The campaign also plans to enlist more than 1 million volunteers using a vast database of supporters who have attended Trump’s raucous political rallies over the past two years”
The contrast from 2016 could hardly be greater. Back then, Trump was an insurgent despised by many in the Republican party, running a chaotic campaign by the seat of his pants. This time he is backed to the hilt by the RNC and already his campaign has a national press team led by Kayleigh McEnany, a former RNC spokesperson.
Lanhee Chen, policy director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and an adviser to Marco Rubio in 2016, said: “The president has the benefit of having no opposition within the party… They have the ability of being able to do what they want to do.
“Secondly, they are clearly trying to create strong players in the major functional areas of the campaign with communications, digital and even policy professionals. It suggests a level of commitment and organization that wasn’t there in 2016.”
Chen, now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, added that will be able to rely on both major Republican funders and small dollar donors. “We also underestimate the degree to which the president is able to generate earned media whenever he wants and that’s worth many millions. The question of fundraising is bigger for the Democrats than the incumben
“Data will be very important. It’s an area that’s been one of the most significant changes over the last two or three cycles: the role data plays in political targeting and media targeting.”
But Trump is also looking for a new and compelling message. So far the president has previewed “Keep America Great!” as a sequel to “Make America Great Again” and urged supporters to chant “Finish the wall” instead of “Build the wall” – despite no section of his promised wall on the US-Mexico border having been built. He has also sought to demonize opponents as “socialists”.
Tyler, the former Cruz spokesperson who is now a political analyst, added: “ I don’t think he will have trouble figuring out a message: he’s very good at that. If you are the Democrats, do not underestimate this candidacy. I know what his poll numbers are, but if you choose a candidate with the wrong message, you will lose.”
Even so, Trump faces an uphill climb. In November’s midterm electionsHouse Republicans were hammered, especially by suburban women, and fared badly in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – all critical to Trump’s win in 2016. Sensing that he is unusually vulnerable for a sitting president, 15 Democrats have already entered the race to take him on.
The RNC has a rapid response unit which attacks Democratic candidates as soon as they declare. On Thursday, a few hours after Beto O’Rourke entered the race, it fired off a long email that included: “O’Rourke tried to flee the scene of a DUI and lied about the incident. O’Rourke was arrested for burglary while at college. O’Rourke’s was involved in a controversial El Paso real estate deal that his father-in-law invested in.”
Pro-Trump groups are also raising funds off fear of his adversaries. This week the America First Action Superpac distributed an email titled: “George Soros is trying to buy your election.” It warned that leftwing billionaires “succeeded at buying the people’s House” in 2018 and now plan to send the silent majority back to the shadows. “It’s time to re-assemble our army of small-dollar donors and declare another victory for the forgotten men and women of America.”
The great unknowable, however, remains Trump and his cult of personality. Michael Steel, a senior adviser to Jeb Bush’s campaign in the primaries last time, said: “I think the president’s team has recognized he was elected with the narrowest of margins and the path to re-election is narrow and treacherous. It is better to have good and effective data operation than not, but the person on the ballot and his or her character and performance is ultimately what voters will base their decision on.”