WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and his allies are hoping to use the Democratic National Convention to advance their monthslong efforts to frame Joe Biden as a captive of the party’s far-left wing — a message that has so far this year failed to gain traction.
As the president travels to at least four battleground states over the course of the convention, the campaign will have a war room of rapid response staffers ready to seize on comments by convention speakers around defunding police departments, eliminating private insurance and ending the fossil fuel industry, issues they say could turn off independent voters, particularly suburban women, in November.
With Trump trailing in every major public poll over the last month, including in key swing states, the campaign has been struggling to land a punch against Biden that can cut into his lead. Perhaps its most enduring messaging push has been an effort to define Biden as being aligned with the party’s progressive wing and away from the image of him as President Barack Obama’s folksy vice president.
"In Joe Biden's America, the protections of American citizenship will be stripped away and your community will be left at the mercy of the mob," Trump said at a campaign event Monday in Minnesota, adding "I mean, I’m saying these things, but I mean them."
But the campaign has pushed the message since at least March, without success — and it conflicts with a counternarrative the campaign has also embraced, of Biden as an ineffective Washington establishment figure.
Of particular focus for Trump’s allies will be convention remarks by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., whose names and images the campaign repeatedly invokes. In one ad this month, a voiceover says “the radical left has taken over Joe Biden and the Democratic Party” as an image of Biden next to Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez appears on the screen.
After Biden’s pick of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate last week, the campaign has repeatedly called her both the most liberal senator and phony, looking to tie her to the Sanders plan for universal, government-run health insurance.
“The extreme leftist takeover of Joe Biden is complete, and while Joe Biden is having a convention where AOC is speaking, President Trump will be planning to be in Pennsylvania talking about jobs and the fracking industry, which Biden and AOC would destroy,” campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.
For Trump, this week represents a rare moment where he may not automatically dominate every news cycle, as the television networks shift into live convention coverage, particularly in the prime-time hours.
The campaign is trying to keep Trump atop the headlines at least in the battleground states by organizing events for him in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arizona and Pennsylvania, with counterprogramming focused on the economy, immigration and the energy industry, Murtaugh said.
“I'll be there very soon,” Trump promised Wisconsin supporters in a surprise Facebook tele-rally Wednesday.
On Thursday, when Biden will give his acceptance speech, Trump will give a speech at Mariotti Building Products just outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden’s hometown, to make the case that the former vice president shouldn’t be treated as a native son since he hasn’t lived there in decades, and counter Trump’s support of fracking with Biden’s message on climate change.
The Trump campaign has said they also plan to compete with Democrats online during the most high-profile days of the convention as many viewers are expected to stream the events over the internet, all but guaranteeing they get their message in front of voters seeking digital political coverage.
The campaign plans to spend in the high seven figures to take over the banner of YouTube for 96 hours starting Tuesday. They also planned to cover the home pages of The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and FoxNews.com with Trump ads and will use more targeted Hulu ads in battleground states. The digital ad push was first reported by The New York Times.
During the Democratic primaries, Trump had some success at stealing away the spotlight from his rivals by holding rallies in the days before voters went to the polls. But he will now have to try to grab the attention of the news media without the stadium-filled rallies that generated days of local news coverage and shut down large parts of cities.
Republicans will get their moment in the spotlight the following week, but what their event will look like remained in flux weeks after the pandemic forced them to abandon plans for a large in-person convention, officials said. Trump confirmed during a New York Post interview Thursday that he expected to give his acceptance speech at the White House. The Republican National Committee hasn't put out a final schedule of speakers.
In the meantime, while Democrats hold their convention, the RNC plans to put out extra surrogates and ramp up its field efforts, and it will have a war room set up to handle rapid response efforts, a committee official said.
“Each day and night, we will be aggressively countering Democrats’ message and highlighting to Americans how the radical Biden-Harris agenda would raise taxes, kill jobs and make communities less safe,” RNC national press secretary Mandi Merritt said.
Two pro-Trump Super PACs, America First and America Rising, will also be sending out fact check releases and commentary.
Logistically, Republican efforts to capitalize off of any message openings they see from the Democrats will look much different than they did in 2016, with the transition to a virtual event featuring speakers spread out across the country.
In 2016, the RNC set up an event space and work area in Philadelphia near where the Democrats were holding their convention with dozens of staffers doing rapid response and media events.
They rented out a boxing arena where they held press conferences and had rigged games, like a prize wheel that always landed on Hillary Clinton to emphasize their message of a rigged system from which they said she benefited.
This time around, as this week's convention kicked off, Trump himself played armchair critic from inside the state where the event was originally slated to be held, knocking the idea of former first lady Michelle Obama's address being delivered via taped remarks. Next week, he told a Wisconsin crowd Monday, his acceptance would be “live from the White House — and we have a lot to say.”