WASHINGTON — As summertime opens up on one of the most unpredictable and unconventional presidential campaigns in modern U.S. history, President Donald Trump's re-election effort is running on two tracks.
The president's team had planned on heading into the fall boosted by a strong economy and a campaign juggernaut three years in the making — armed with unparalleled financial resources and a decided technological advantage over a rival whose campaign nearly went broke trying to win the nomination and is now racing to catch up while confined to his Delaware home.
But the nation's economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic has taken the wind out of the sails of Trump’s primary argument for another term, leaving the second track, one on which the president and his allies are amplifying a confusing array of unfounded conspiracy theories while downplaying a public health crisis to try to reverse a concerning and stubborn trend in polling that shows him trailing nationally and in key states.
Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign has largely adapted its core message — framing the contest against Trump as "a battle for the soul of the nation” — to match the perilous national moment. But the apparent Democratic nominee has struggled to get that message into the bloodstream on a regular basis, instead only seeming to generate significant attention in short bursts centered around controversies — most recently veering off script in a radio interview to declare that African American voters struggling with whether to support him over Trump "ain’t black.”
While rallies, speeches and fundraisers involving personal contact have gone by the wayside for now, a familiar campaign rhythm has begun to emerge in which the two competing teams trade blows, seemingly previewing what's still to come: a scorched-earth campaign in which the respective party bases are energized — even radicalized — while the broader electorate struggles to keep up.
The 'Death Star' begins to deploy
Among the initial consequences of the pandemic is that it has given Biden something of a reprieve from the kind of sustained, immediate attacks that past incumbent campaigns delivered as soon as their foe became apparent.
In 2012, then-President Barack Obama delivered his first frontal assault on Mitt Romney in early April, in a speech tightly binding him to an unpopular Republican congressional majority and their austere budget plan. In 2004, George W. Bush's campaign launched an immediate ad blitz targeting John Kerry after he appeared to clinch the nomination with a strong Super Tuesday.
After Biden amassed a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead in mid-March, he enjoyed a nearly two-month cease-fire in which he launched a carefully choreographed series of steps aimed at underscoring Democratic unity with his principal remaining foe, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
But Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale promised the deployment of the campaign's "Death Star," and that has now begun, with a sustained advertising bombardment against Biden.
With at least $10 million and infinite space online to amplify their attacks, the Trump 2020 team launched an onslaught of new national ads against Biden this month on specific issues like his dealings with China, and more broad accusations questioning his mental fitness.
Before the pandemic, the president largely felt he was on a glide path to a second term with a drawn-out primary fight on the Democratic side and the benefits of his incumbency, senior campaign officials told NBC News.
But Trump has seen a growing number of Americans souring on his leadership on the pandemic and trickling into the general election matchups with Biden. Last month, the president berated his campaign manager for internal polling that showed them trailing Biden nationally. Officials now claim Trump is up slightly in key battleground states in their own numbers, which recent surveys suggest is possible.
With much of the country beginning to reopen, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are traveling regularly again, averaging a few trips a week, with more visits expected in areas that will decide the 2020 election as the summer heats up.
After years of slamming his predecessor on everything from Iran and North Korea to health care and immigration, Trump took his attacks further this month to accuse Obama of an unspecified crime that the president now calls “Obamagate.”
The Biden campaign insists that what they call a “desperation” campaign won’t succeed.
"Where the president has succeeded in the past in terms of throwing up lots of distractions and smokescreens and trying to move the debate, I don't think he's going to succeed here," Mike Donilon, Biden's chief strategist, said. "I think Trump is risking a real problem in trying to push the conversation to a place where the country knows that that's not what's at stake."
Party like it's 2018
For the Biden campaign, the theory of the case is little changed from what his tight-knit inner circle envisioned from the beginning.
Running somewhat against the grain of conventional wisdom among the media and the party leaders, Biden's strategy in the primary always had an eye toward a general election fight they believed would be as much about persuading swing voters — primarily disaffected Republicans and independents — than about driving up turnout among bedrock Democratic constituencies, especially African Americans. It was the same formula, they noted, that helped win back the House in the midterm elections.
"There are core problems that Trump has — both substantive and stylistic — when it comes to women voters in particular, and women are going to make the difference in 2020 as they did in 2018," campaign manager Jennifer O'Malley Dillon said. "And we know that we have the opportunity to win back voters who have moved away" from Democrats in some cases.
"That's certainly because of the strength of the vice president. It is also because of the weakness of Donald Trump."
Biden’s top strategists have been somewhat amused lately at the flood of unsolicited advice and dire warnings about the campaign ahead, mainly from the same voices that predicted his third presidential campaign was doomed to flounder much as his previous two. They see little need to change their core message at a time when Biden is still ahead.
“Voters are looking for steady leadership. Experience. Empathy and compassion. Character. That’s been Joe Biden’s argument since the day he entered the race and it will be his winning argument in November 2020,” Donilon said.
They do acknowledge some of the structural challenges the campaign has faced, and which they insist they have begun to rectify.
In her first wide-ranging strategy briefing since taking over as campaign manager in March, O’Malley Dillon told reporters this month the campaign has doubled their digital team as they have focused their initial general election changes with the imperative of a virtual campaign in mind. But they’re also planning to deploy more than 600 organizers to key states in June, in some cases with a state-specific strategy largely driven by the national campaign, and in others to help build on efforts already underway by Democratic Senate candidates and the Democratic National Committee.
“There is no cookie-cutter approach, there is no national election,” O’Malley Dillon said. “There is a very state-specific battleground approach to ensure that we put together our unique formula by state based on their electorate of our path to victory to reach our win number.”
By the point the Biden campaign rolls out its new hires, the joint Trump campaign and Republican National Committee re-elect effort will have nearly double the number of staff in critical battleground states, most of whom were deployed a year ago. Volunteerwise, Republicans boast having 1.2 million engaged at this point, with a goal of having 2 million total by November.
Campaigning from home
The president is itching to return to the traditional campaign trail but will have to settle, for now, for official White House visits to highlight his administration’s coronavirus response in strategically chosen battleground states. Aides don’t anticipate large-scale rallies to return before August, though they are exploring other ways to get Trump in front of his supporters earlier in the summer.
He has mused that his first campaign events with thousands of supporters could take place in Florida or Georgia, “whoever opens up first,” predicting that may happen “sooner rather than later,” despite public health officials warning about the safety risks of mass gatherings.
Trump’s ability to summon a national press corps even while “home” underscores what is typically one of the biggest advantages an incumbent president has, to run a “Rose Garden” strategy, even if Trump might prefer to be in crowded arenas. The president and his aides have also been quick to mock Biden’s “basement” campaign, as the former vice president abides by Delaware’s stay-at-home order.
Friday offered both campaigns an early test of how well-equipped they were to respond and respond quickly to Biden missteps.
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While Biden recorded his often-combative interview with “The Breakfast Club” on Thursday night, his campaign appeared to be caught flat-footed when it sparked a brushfire on social media Friday morning.
And the Trump team quickly fanned the flames, with quick tweets by the campaign and top surrogates, soon followed by a conference call with Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the lone African American Republican in the Senate. It wasn’t until later Friday afternoon that Biden himself expressed remorse about the comments in a phone discussion with the U.S. Black Chambers.
The Biden campaign has given no indication of when the candidate might return to the campaign trail. He has been confined to his home since mid-March, when he participated in a final primary debate against Sanders. Monday was the first time he was seen outside his home since then, in a black mask, as he laid a wreath at a war memorial not far from where he lives.
"It feels good to be out of my house,” he told a reporter there.