Trump campaign looks to re-energize 'disengagers' for 2020

Even with impeachment looming, the president’s team is concerned about luring back 2016 supporters who have been sidelined.
Image: President Donald Trump arrives to a rally in Sunrise, Fla., on Nov. 26, 2019.
President Trump arrives at a rally in Sunrise, Fla., on Nov. 26, 2019.Brynn Anderson / AP file

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By Monica Alba

WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump travels to Michigan on Wednesday for his last campaign rally of the year, he’s likely to make the kind of attack on a freshman Democratic congresswoman that he usually reserves for bigger political targets.

Already a past subject of criticism, Rep. Rashida Tlaib is seen by Trump campaign officials as the type of high-profile foil — liberal, Muslim and from the Detroit area's 13th District — that can re-energize voters who helped the president win this crucial state in 2016 and put him in the White House.

The Trump campaign is particularly banking that his brand of criticisms will appeal to a group of voters it is increasingly concerned about: those who supported the president last time but have taken to the sidelines since then.

Senior Trump campaign officials have dubbed these voters “disengagers.” They haven’t been regularly attending rallies, didn’t vote for Republicans in the 2018 midterms, and haven’t necessarily responded positively to campaign outreach in the last three years.

Retaining these “disengagers” in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — the three Rust Belt states that together delivered Trump a decisive electoral college victory — will be critical to his re-election chances, campaign officials say.

And the margins remain razor-thin: Trump won Michigan by a mere 11,000 votes in 2016, and his winning margin for all three states combined was about 77,000.

Republicans are particularly worried about Michigan, especially given Democratic gains in the 2018 midterms when Democrats swept major statewide races — taking back the governorship and flipping two congressional seats.

One of those seats is now held by Rep. Elissa Slotkin who announced Monday she will support the two articles of impeachment against Trump. Slotkin held a contentious town hall in Rochester on Monday, where protesters showcased the challenge more moderate Democrats will face after Wednesday’s expected vote.

Although the likely impeachment of the president in the House of Representatives has “ignited a flame” underneath his base, Trump campaign officials say, they also concede they will need to do more than capitalize on vulnerable Democrats to win over enough voters to secure a second term.

The president is particularly sensitive to moderate Democrats who have worked with him in the past but are now sharply criticizing him on impeachment. Trump targeted another Michigan congresswoman, Rep. Debbie Dingell, over the weekend after she went on television and said she was “deeply disturbed” by the president’s behavior.

“I’ve always said I’ll work with President Trump when he wants to help hard-working men and women, but I’ll also work to hold this administration accountable,” Dingell fired back.

Estimates vary of just how many “disengagers” there are in each state. But in Michigan’s critical Macomb County alone, a state party official estimates there are about 50,000. Nationwide, officials estimate there are nearly 9 million of these kind of voters and they will be key targets over the next 11 months.

It’s natural to see some attrition from presidential to midterm elections, but even the Republican Party's national chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, is raising the alarm when it comes to this voting bloc. “We’ve really identified and we are targeting those disengagers, because if we can bring them back in in 2020, the president wins those states again," she said.

The Trump campaign, in particular, needs to re-engage these voters because there is little to no evidence that he has expanded his base since 2016. Though the campaign argues otherwise, polls show that Trump’s core supporters are largely older white men with less education as his support among women and suburban voters has tumbled.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in October found that 60 percent of women overall disapprove of the president, with 54 percent of suburban women saying the same thing, a significant drop-off from his support with female voters in 2016.

That’s why the Trump team has elevated Tlaib and other members of "the squad” — a quartet of left-leaning Democratic women of color in the House, whose outspoken views and criticism of Trump could reanimate some disengaged Trump supporters, particularly conservative women.

McDaniel, who is from Michigan, has been focused on “disengagers” for months, advising the campaign to dial up the “socialist” talking points when it comes to the “squad,” helping the president lay the groundwork for a stark choice between him and the eventual Democratic nominee.

Meshawn Maddock, a Trump volunteer in the northwest Detroit suburb of Walled Lake, calls Tlaib and other squad members “the wicked witches of the Democrat Party.”

Maddock, who served as a Trump campaign county chair in 2016, says elevating the president's attacks on the congresswomen has already been an effective campaign message — a job made easier by the muddled Democratic presidential field, which helps Trump allies paint the squad as the face of the party.

“I can motivate any crowd when I talk about them. They can’t stand them. Because they’re bats--- crazy and people know it,” Maddock said, surrounded by life-size cutouts of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in a makeshift grassroots office.

Trump Victory, the joint fundraising committee between the 2020 campaign and the Republican National Committee, has a small staff in the state, with field offices opening soon.

Still, there is no comparison to the amount of time and resources now being dedicated to winning Michigan when contrasted with the grassroots, slapdash nature of 2016, when even Maddock thought Trump would lose.

“We were doing in July before the election what we are doing now, and we won’t let the foot off the gas when it comes to campaigning,” she said.

Michigan Democrats are confident the “blue wave” that came through the state last year is only a predictor of what will happen next year. “Trump can try every desperate lie, spin and messaging gimmick in the book, but he can't distract from the basic fact that he's broken his promises to Michigan voters and they're leaving him in droves because of it,” said Christian Slater, a spokesman for the Michigan Democratic Party.

Trump hadn’t held a campaign rally in the all-important Rust Belt since May, but he returned to Pennsylvania for a 2020 rally this month, will stump in Michigan on Wednesday night and is expected to visit Wisconsin early next year.