President Donald Trump's re-election campaign is banking heavily on its ability to turn out what it believes is his excited base to defeat presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. And at the same time, he seeks to depress turnout for Biden by defining him in ways that are unpalatable to the key voting blocs he needs to win.
But Trump keeps shooting himself in the foot — and putting his campaign (and the White House) on the defensive. Take the most recent example: Trump's statement at his rally Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that he had told officials to slow down the testing of Americans for COVID-19. Days later, his campaign and the White House are still doing damage control.
Statements like these leave Trump and his allies unable to go on the offense against Biden. Trump has, for instance, sought repeatedly to question Biden's mental fitness — including multiple times last week. However, not only is Biden's health not exactly a major topic of national conversation, but, when it has been, the conversation has also spawned questions about Trump's own faculties.
It all feels very much like the same playbook Trump and his campaign employed to secure their unexpected victory against Hillary Clinton in 2016, down to their repeated claims that there is an enthusiasm gap between the campaigns and that Biden has "zero energy."
On the surface, Trump is not wrong; his base is far more excited about him than Democrats are about their candidate, just as in 2016. However, Trump and his advisers have seriously misread the electoral landscape in 2020 if they think the metric against which they should be measuring enthusiasm for Trump is enthusiasm for Biden.
Long before COVID-19 devastated Americans and the economy and the horrific public killing of George Floyd, the American electorate was tired and angry. It is tired of the incessant drama emanating from the current occupant of the Oval Office, and it is angry at how this presidency has played out because of that drama.
That is why new voter registration surged before the 2018 midterms and actual voter turnout — 53.4 percent — was the highest it had been for a midterm election in over 50 years, not because of overwhelming enthusiasm for individual Democrats.
Reliable Republican voters like suburban women and senior citizens have been increasingly drifting toward Democratic candidates in both polls and elections since Trump took office, not because Democrats have been winning them over, but because Trump and Republicans have been losing them. And a recent Fox News poll showing Biden with a 10-point lead over Trump among voters 65 and older only confirms the growing problem for him.
And these are not the voters he can count on staying home and not voting.
Trump and his team's plan to secure a second term by trying to drive down voter enthusiasm for Biden and depressing Democratic turnout is built on a shaky foundation — one that rests on a stunning lack of self-awareness and examination. Certainly, Trump broke the mold of how presidents are elected and behave in office, and some Americans love that. But he and his team have failed to recognize how deeply other Americans do not like it, let alone acknowledge those who are fed up with the chaos and commotion.
Voters might not have much of an opinion about — or even like — Joe Biden, but they are openly expressing their desire to vote for him simply because he is not Donald Trump.
The president's campaign, which is being advised by Karl Rove, would undoubtedly note that, in 2004 and 2012, the challengers to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not benefit from anti-Bush or anti-Obama voters; with relatively low turnout, those voters stayed home in too great numbers, unconvinced of the necessity to turn out or of their own power.
But Trump is neither Bush nor Obama to the voters who have serious problems with him, and that line of thinking fails to account for what Biden represents to millions of voters: stability and tranquility after a years-long Trumpian tempest. He is, unlike John Kerry or Mitt Romney, a reminder of an era of relative calm.
That is why Trump's demeanor and governing style are self-sabotaging his re-election prospects. Look at Evangelical Christians: Trump's support among white Evangelicals has dropped by 15 points since March and now stands at 62 percent. The reasons seem to be his handling of COVID-19 and the fallout from the killing of George Floyd. While the polling reflects white Evangelical voters nationally, rather than in key states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona, it is such a steep drop that alarm bells should be going off within the campaign.
But with each and every outlandish utterance or tweet, Trump fuels the exhaustion and anger voters are feeling toward him, rather than toward the system, and pushes away voters from key voting blocs that he desperately needs to win. Biden might not have as much enthusiasm from his base as Trump, but Trump certainly is enthusiastically pushing voters toward Biden.
While he and his campaign naively still hope that they will be able to direct the focus on Biden, both the media and voters are not about to ask, in the midst of a pandemic, a recession and a conversation on police reform, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?"