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The Formidable Reelection Campaign

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

What was President Trump's reelection campaign made of, and how could it fail?




Around November of 2019, a mysterious change subtly took place in the political discourse in America, although it went largely unnoticed at the time. Statements and denunciations against the evils of immigration, that had been a keystone of the 2016 Trump campaign and much of the Trump Administration, grew scarce in the Presidential tweet account. The Republican operatives no longer sounded the alarm about an invasion of illegal immigrants. Fox News, Breitbart and other Trump Administration-aligned media stopped talking about caravans of illegal immigrants threatening to overrun the United States borders. It was a coordinated hush on immigrant-related concerns across the Republican sphere.


But the Administration’s policies on immigration didn’t change: The government still attempted to strike DACA down, the Wall continued to be built, the quota for refugees continued to be slashed [1] … It’s just that all went on without much fanfare, almost in a covert manner.


What had happened? Why the change of tone on immigration, at least in public?

It is an important question, because it starts to uncover the breadth and power of the electoral arsenal that was called upon by President Trump’s reelection strategy.

We can now 'reverse-engineer' what that strategy was. In summary, it had 11 pillars, which were:

We can now 'reverse-engineer' what that strategy was. In summary, it had 11 pillars, which were:


  1. Early and comprehensive financing campaign. (Started immediately after Inauguration Day in January 2017, a record!)

  2. Centering the political message on the economy's performance. (Which informed the poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic)

  3. Attracting Latino voters, in order to secure a win in the most important battleground State, Florida. (Within which strategy the toning down of the anti-immigrant rhetoric mentioned above was called for.)

  4. Setting up the “Stop the Steal” operation. (At its core an activism operative, fashioned after the successful Brooks Brothers Riot, to throttle up or down vote counting, following the successful Bush 2000 campaign strategy. [2], [3]; its modus operandi being to mobilize activists to 'storm' or 'siege' vote counting precincts in order to stop vote counting when convenient.)

  5. Offsetting the Democratic Party’s mail-in vote advantage – Part 1. (Republican-controlled Legislation at the State level in battleground states, not intended to impede mail-in voting but to narrow down the time window to count mail-in ballots.[4])

  6. Offsetting the Democratic Party’s mail-in vote advantage – Part 2. (Intervention in USPS through a new Postmaster General, enacting various policy changes to slow delivery of mail-in ballots) [5]

  7. Packing the Supreme Court with ostensibly favorable Justices. (Two of Trump’s appointees had been lawyers for the Bush 2000 campaign that had convinced the Supreme Court to stop the vote recount in South Florida while Bush still had an advantage [6].)

  8. Bypassing the popular vote on the appointment of Electors. (This part of the plan was set up in case too many battleground States ended up being lost on Election Day. [7] )

  9. Ground-level elections mechanism adjustments. (Designed and carried out at the State and county level, e.g. reducing number of polling stations in Georgia, Texas, etc. [8] )

  10. Optimized messaging against the Democratic opponents. (Not easy to do, as effective message tuning depended on who ended up being nominated as candidate for the Democratic party, which would only happen five months before the election; then field-testing for the optimal soundbite: “Sleepy Joe”, “beholden to the Crazy Left”, “Marxists, Socialists and Communists”, etc.)

  11. The “October surprise.” (Hinted at since July 2020 to build expectations up, finally released as alleged serious sexual impropriety evidence found in a laptop purportedly coming from the Democratic candidate’s son, Hunter Biden.)

As can be seen, the Trump campaign had a very well designed plan, and the money and power to enact it. Hence the certainty they displayed about winning the election.


And that is why President Trump feels the election was stolen from him: If they had such a smart plan, with so many levers that they were effectively able to move at will, how was it possible that he lost?

... which is why President Trump feels the election was stolen from him: If they had such a smart plan, with so many levers that they were effectively able to move at will, how was it possible that he lost?

We now know why Trump’s reelection strategy failed, as events have shown that the plan had some serious, though previously undetected, weaknesses.


Man's best laid plans...


This is how the plan started to unravel:


To begin with, two black swans occurred in the last year of the President's term: The COVID-19 virus, and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans at the hands of police forces, that triggered demonstrations led by the Black Lives Matter movement.


But it was the way the Trump Administration chose to respond to both events that defined the impact they would have on the campaign.


On the first one, and since the economy's performance was such an important prong in the reelection campaign, the Administration made the fateful decision to downplay the seriousness of the COVID-19 threat, trying to avoid and, later, trying to at least delay, restricting activities that could affect the economy, thus incurring in serious human lives costs. This resulted in an image of incompetence and carelessness that President Trump's rivals exploited successfully.


In regards to the high profile African American killings and the ensuing demonstrations and riots, the President made another fateful decision in denouncing those demonstrations and making a show of force, seeking to position himself as the Law and Order candidate, emulating what had been a wildly successful strategy for Nixon in 1968. But the results of that strategy seem to have been counterproductive, as it fueled the allegations of racism that had lingered against President Trump for long.


Still, in spite of the botched response to both events, President Trump, his allies and followers felt confident that they would prevail in the election, as the strategy outlined above seemed to be panning out well by the time that the Democratic party selected their candidate, in June 2020. Vice president Biden was only then able to start to seek funding for his campaign.


But then, in spite of the lead the Trump campaign had attained on funds, the rate at which the money was spent resulted in the paradox that just three months later (September 2020) it had less money left to spend than his rival’s. [9]


Also, around that time too, the polls started showing the Democrats ahead in Georgia, which had up to then been deemed a solidly Red State. The campaign scrambled to respond quickly to this new threat, by adding a twelfth prong to the strategy, in the shape of the “Platinum Plan”, an electoral offering to the African American community intended to attract Black votes away from the Democratic side. [10]


At about the same time, President Trump's lead in public favorability on handling the economy evaporated. [11] From that point onwards, the campaign decided to refocus their message back on the Economy and away from the Law and Order stint.


From then on, as the campaign activities intensified, President Trump, unfettered by concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic, spent considerably more time in front of crowds than his rival was willing to do.


Thus, on Election Day in the early evening, things looked rosy for the Republican candidate. A clear win in Florida was announced early, and seemed to herald better and better news.

But then, the real problem started in the evening, when, with just 70% of the votes counted, and while the numbers still favored President Trump, Fox News forecasted that Biden would win Arizona.


That was a bombshell. The Trump campaign had expected that by end of Election day the vote count would still favor President Trump, as the mail-in-ballots would only start to be counted late, and thus there would be opportunity to apply the “Stop the Steal” operation to stop the count while President Trump still had the advantage. But, by predicting that Biden would win Arizona, Fox News was killing the argument before it could be used.

The Trump campaign reacted furiously, as is now well known. President Trump called the network’s Chairman, Rupert Murdoch, demanding that the network recant its prediction. His son, Donald Trump Jr., enraged, called the network directly, and so did many of the media figures closest to the President [12] . But to no avail.


From then on, the outlook continued worsening, as the Democratic candidate took the lead in some battleground states and, worse, as his lead started growing. The Trump campaign launched the “Stop the Steal” operation full force, with President Trump going into blitzkrieg mode demanding immediately after Election Day that vote counting be stopped [13] , and launching a flurry of legal suits in the battleground states to accomplish that. But to no immediate avail, as the vote counting continued in almost all contested states.


By November 7th, enough votes had been counted that gave certainty that Biden had won the Electoral College majority.


While all of this was going on, the Trump campaign, as well as the State GOP and other officials were launching various lawsuits in Federal courts trying to overturn the results, but with little success. The most worrying aspect for them was, though, that the lawsuits weren’t reaching the Supreme Court, being struck down forcefully by the Federal courts where they were presented, and appeals were not being approved. Thus, the opportunity to make use of the perceived advantage at the Supreme Court went unfulfilled.


By that point, the other parts of the Republican strategy kicked in. Calls were made to the Republican-controlled Legislatures in the battleground states lost by Trump in order to get them to discard the election results and instead appoint the Electors to Trump. But on one hand it was too late from a legal stand point, as the Constitution mandates that if State Legislatures are to appoint the electors instead of the citizens, they should do it on Election Night. Also, State Legislatures didn’t seem enthusiastic about attempting such a brazen move, in light of the significant vote tally difference between both candidates, that made it hard to claim that the election was a “disputed” one.


The Trump campaign then moved to their most audacious recourse yet, the one that was there just in case everything else failed, which was to bring the case to the Supreme Court to demand that it decide on the election. This was made through the Texas AG, whose lead another 17 Republican AGs followed, together with over a hundred GOP Representatives, filing a demand to have the election results in the four lost battleground states dismissed so that the Legislatures in those States could appoint the electors.


But that failed too, as the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the demand.

---------

That wasn't the end, of course, as more and more desperate plans to revert the election results were hastily conceived and put into execution, including pressuring various Republican officials at State and Federal levels to alter the election results, pressuring the Vice President to de-certify the Electors' rolls, and finally a riot and assault on the Capitol that, paradoxically, shattered the President's case in a definitive manner.


Thus, the question stands: Why did President Trump’s awe-inspiring Reelection strategy fail?


Part of the answer to that question is evident above, but in a more general manner what made the strategy –in hindsight- prone to failure was that many of its parts were interdependent.


Crucially, most depended on the vote advantage being small. Indeed, “Stop the Steal” is not a very credible battle cry to stop the count when that count shows a significant difference in favor of the other candidate. Nor would a Supreme Court, even if Conservative-leaning, be much willing to squander their legitimacy if the “contested results” involve four different States (instead of just one county in just one State as was the case in the 2000 elections). The same can be said about many Republican officials, who, when asked to incur in blatant illegal actions to overthrow the election results, saw great legal and political risk to themselves if they attempted to do those.


That’s the problem with strategies that have too many parts that are dependent on each other: if one fails, it can cripple many others.


But in a deeper sense, the problem with the GOP strategy was that, rather than seeking to expand its appeal and reach a wider base (other than the surgical effort to woo in some Latinos in South Florida), it was oriented mostly towards controlling who could vote and whose votes would be counted.


That is a naturally limiting strategy for a national party.


Footnotes

[1] Trump administration sets record low limit for new U.S. refugees

[2] Stop the Steal - Wikipedia

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2018/11/15/its-insanity-how-brooks-brothers-riot-killed-recount-miami/

[4] For example, the Wisconsin GOP fought to, and succeeded in, limiting the time that mail-in ballots postmarked by Elections day could be received and counted (i), Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled Legislature dismissed calls to allow mail-in and early votes to start being counted before election day (ii), and so on.

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/11/03/election-ballot-delays-usps/

[6] https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article214604235.html

[7] The Atlantic Daily: A Q&A With Barton Gellman

[8] Southern U.S. states have closed 1,200 polling places in recent years: rights group

[9] How Trump’s Billion-Dollar Campaign Lost Its Cash Advantage

[10] Trump Promises Black Voters A 'Platinum Plan' For Loans As He Bashes Biden

[11] https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/10/trump-economy-polls-loses-lead-biden.html

[12] How Fox News triggered anger at the White House on election night and a call to Rupert Murdoch

[13] Trump demands end to vote-counting to avert unspecified ‘fraud’; Biden side calls unprecedented effort ‘outrageous’

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