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Analysis: As Trump launches reelection bid, can he defy expectations again?

Jonathan Tamari, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA--Can he do it again?

Ever since Donald Trump won the 2016 election, the questions raised by that stunning result have dominated public life in America.

Had Trump exposed a fundamental shift in American politics and what voters wanted from a president? Had his nationalistic appeal been overlooked and underestimated?

Or was it just a freak event -- an unrepresentative victory by just the right number of votes in just the right states, even as Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million?

The answers are still more than a year away, but the test of Trump's staying power formally began Tuesday night, when the president launched his reelection campaign with a rally in Orlando, casting the race as a referendum on his victory and on respect for his supporters.

"This was a defining moment in American history," Trump said of his win, accusing Democrats and the news media of trying to undercut that win.

"They tried to erase your vote, erase your legacy of the greatest campaign and the greatest election, probably, in the history of our country," Trump told 20,000 roaring supporters in a speech packed with old grievances and boasts, and little effort to lay out a second-term agenda. He cast the election mostly as a chance to reaffirm the message sent in 2016. "If you want to shut down this rigged system once and for all, then show up Nov. 3."

Another Trump win "would suggest there's enough voters out there that think the system is so broken that there's no need to try to bring (back) a sense of normalcy," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

This time, Trump starts with the power of incumbency, a muscular campaign operation that had more than $40 million in the bank at the end of March, and an economy that has steadily grown under his watch.

Yet Trump again faces significant headwinds.

Polls suggest that voter disapproval has hardened during his time in office, even if most of his base remains firmly behind him. For a president whose approval rating has consistently placed in the 40s, and who won the White House by capturing Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin by less than 1 percentage point each, there is little margin for error.

"Donald Trump drew an inside straight in 2016. The question remains whether he can draw an inside straight two hands in a row," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who advised U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., during his presidential campaign. "The president has done virtually nothing to expand the coalition of the people who support him, in lieu of energizing and reinforcing the people who are already with him."

Unlike in 2016, when Trump won over many voters by making Hillary Clinton an unacceptable alternative, this race will be a clear referendum on the incumbent, said Lara Brown, an associate professor at George Washington University's School of Political Management. She pointed to polling that suggests some of the soft supporters who gave Trump a chance because they didn't like Clinton or wanted a change have turned against him.

"President Trump is in a very precarious position," Brown said. "If we look at where the independents are today vs. where they were on Election Day (2016), he has lost ground."

In Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin -- key Rust Belt states that could swing the election -- Trump's average disapproval rating has grown by around 13% since his inauguration, she said, citing data from Morning Consult, a polling company that conducts regular surveys.

"Trump has only hardened perceptions of his character and behavior over time," Brown said.

His campaign launch could do the same. Four years after riding down an escalator in Trump Tower and describing Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, Trump preceded his reelection rally by announcing plans for deporting "millions of illegal aliens," starting next week.

He did it, of course, on Twitter.

"He's got some very real problems, and I suspect his announcement will exacerbate his problems, because his announcement will be pitched to the base," said Robert Shrum, a longtime Democratic consultant who is now a professor at the University of Southern California. "He's doubling down on the strategy that has gotten to somewhere between 38 and 42% approval."

Indeed, Trump spent most of his more than hourlong speech reprising familiar grievances against Democrats, the news media, the special counsel investigation into Russian interference, and Clinton.

He accused Democrats of being "driven by prejudice, hatred, and rage" (a charge frequently leveled at the president himself) while supporters revived chants of "Lock her up!" and "Drain the swamp!" and "CNN sucks!"


His second term plans to fight AIDS, put a man on Mars, and protect Second Amendment rights came at the end and without detail.

Hours before Trump's rally, Quinnipiac University released a poll showing that in Florida, another critical swing state, voters give Trump a negative approval rating, 51% to 44 percent, and that the president would trail the top Democratic contenders there.

Others polls have found similar results in Pennsylvania and other battleground states, and have been backed up by some of the Trump campaign's internal polling numbers that were leaked to reporters.

Trump and Republicans argue, however, that he is far better positioned to win this time.

Unlike the haphazard 2016 campaign, Trump has a fully staffed operation working for him from a sleek Arlington, Va., office. His campaign has already spent more than $10 million on digital ads on Facebook and Google, dwarfing every Democratic contender, according to tracking by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic consulting firm.

His team is collecting data from the thousands who attend Trump rallies, hoping to organize a volunteer army. And the president has an emotional pull on his supporters that few politicians can match.

People began lining up outside the Amway Center in Orlando more than 40 hours before Trump's rally. Elsewhere, the Republican National Committee planned about 1,000 watch parties across the country, including 37 in Pennsylvania.

"We were an insurgent campaign last time," said Ted Christian, Trump's 2016 state director in Pennsylvania, "Now we have almost an 18-month head start on the reelection. It's nice to have a unified party, and I think everyone is very excited about working for the president and touting his accomplishments."

Trump fans at a watch party at Conshohocken Brewing Co. in King of Prussia wore Make America Great Again hats and lots of red. Dasha Pruett, who came to this country from Russia when she was 10, said she sees the president as a shield against socialist-leaning Democratic candidates.

"My family left communism, socialism, and seeing what's going on right now is very disturbing," she said.

Trump and his allies argue that voters will reward the president for a strong economy, with the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years and rising wages. "The American dream is back, it's bigger and better and stronger than ever before," Trump boasted in Orlando.

He bragged about appointing conservative judges, challenging China on trade, and fighting undocumented immigration.

Yet polls also suggest that even many people happy with the economy don't like Trump, and Democrats argue his tax cuts and tariffs have hurt the working people who flocked to him in 2016.

The Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA on Monday launched digital ads in Florida blaming Trump for rising health insurance prices and for trying to eliminate protections for people with preexisting conditions.

Over the coming months, much will depend on Trump's opponent, just as it did in 2016, said Murray, the Monmouth pollster. The economy could also shape the results, as will a grueling campaign.

"In a normal presidency, he would not be considered to be in a good position," Murray said. "But this, as we know, is not a normal presidency."

(Staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this report.)

(c)2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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