Some Democratic strategists worry their party’s candidates could enable President Donald Trump to portray himself as a moderate. | Alex Wong/Getty Images
The president’s reelection campaign hopes to use some of the Democratic presidential candidates’ most liberal stances to draw new working-class and independent voters to Trump.
By GABBY ORR
07/30/2019 05:04 AM EDT
When the Democrats running for president all agreed at their first debate — via a raised hand — that public health insurance should cover undocumented immigrants, the Trump campaign saw an opening.
The campaign war room immediately clipped the video and shared it on social media. President Donald Trump tweeted about it. It was a tactic, people assumed, to rile up Trump’s steadfast but limited base ahead of 2020. Story Continued Below
Inside the Trump campaign, though, officials thought they were actually growing that base.
According to four people involved with or close to the Trump campaign, the president’s reelection team believes trumpeting these moments will help win over a certain type of voter that could help carry him to a second term. It’s the voter who might be wary of Trump, but is more alarmed by a Democratic Party they feel is drifting dangerously to the left.
The campaign thinks blasting out these buzzy responses — one outside adviser specifically pointed to Julián Castro’s endorsement of abortion rights for the transgender community — will actually help Trump add key demographics to his die-hard supporters. In particular, they’re targeting working-class voters and union members who declined to support Trump in the Rust Belt states he won in 2016 — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.
If the theory is right, the adviser said, Trump can “sit back, relax and watch his base grow.”
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“Having the Democrats openly display policies that would be detrimental to Americans will make the choice clear for the base, for independent voters and for everyone else,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the 2020 Trump campaign.
The strategy will be on display Tuesday and Wednesday, when Democrats take the stage in Detroit for a second round of debates.
Rapid response teams at the Trump campaign’s Arlington, Va., headquarters and at the Republican National Committee will be focusing intensely on how the high-polling Democrats behave: Do they withstand pressure to embrace positions that might register poorly with voters in the ideological center — those who have been unsettled by Trump’s presidency but bear no allegiance to either party?
Aides have prepared responses to Democratic talking points and will be watching for notable flip-flops. The campaign’s digital team will be on the hunt for moments to turn into online advertisements or plug into fundraising emails.
“Every time the Democrats debate, we’ll want to tape the whole thing and rerun it on a continuous loop,” Murtaugh said.
Of course, Trump will inevitably steer the post-debate narrative for his campaign. One veteran political analyst said that should both terrify Democrats and encourage them to think strategically if they are forced into another hand-raising “yes or no” box.
“You can sound like you’re agreeing without agreeing,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “But when you’ve got your hand up and all the other side has to do is air a clip of it, it’s really tough to change your position and it’s guaranteed that Trump will take that position and apply it to everybody else on stage.”
Some Democratic strategists are also worried that their party’s debates will enable Trump to portray himself as a moderate.
While the president gets mostly positive marks for the state of the U.S. economy, voters remain overwhelmingly skeptical of his policies. He may be able to overcome that skepticism if he successfully paints the Democratic Party as similarly off-putting.
“It helps motivate your base if you’re an incumbent because you can start to use that extreme fringe as a reflective surface to portray yourself as more centrist, more reasonable,” said Roger Fisk, a public relations expert and longtime aide to former President Barack Obama.
Fisk said the current Democratic field could take a page from Obama’s playbook. He said the former president succeeded in his campaigns because he “didn’t lunge at shiny objects,” but instead focused on pocketbook issues.
“No one is going to close the deal in the last 60 days before the Iowa caucuses with their climate change plan. There’s got to be a gravitational pull toward the kitchen table issues,” he added.
Obama’s first chief of staff in the White House, Rahm Emanuel, implored the Democratic candidates to conduct themselves in the debates in a way that still ensures a path to victory in the general election. “Don’t fall into the traps that had many of us shaking our heads during the debates in Miami,” Emanuel wrote Monday. “Before our party promises health care coverage to undocumented immigrants — a position not even Ted Kennedy took — let’s help the more than 30 million Americans who are a single illness away from financial ruin.“
In this political climate, however, Iowa Democratic activist John Deeth said candidates in his party are better off appealing to their own base than they are trying to position themselves as centrists. The debates might help Trump in the short term, Deeth conceded, but if candidates use them to energize progressive voters, it becomes easier to defeat him next fall.
“We can’t try to win an election by getting both the person who wants to hear about revolution and the person who’s also a mainstream old-fashioned Republican who won’t vote for Trump,” Deeth said. “We have to choose and I think a progressive message can be a winning message.”
Trump has tried to capitalize on the debates himself, live-tweeting the most captivating moments and the performance of individual candidates. Officials familiar with the president’s strategy for the upcoming debates in Detroit said he’s likely to seize on any mention of the four progressive congresswomen he has told to “go back” to other countries. He could even jump on any mention of high-profile policies promoted by members of that group, like the Green New Deal and a $20 federal minimum wage.
“This whole conversation about ‘the squad’ has illustrated that they are, in fact, the leaders of the Democratic Party,” Murtaugh argued. “So every time there is a Democratic debate, it’s another opportunity for the nation to see that the entire field is adopting these socialist policy positions.”
But Trump’s messaging hasn’t always gone as planned.
According to polling data, Trump’s attacks against the four congresswomen — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar — didn’t exactly help with beyond-the-base voters his campaign says it is targeting.
A Fox News poll released Thursday showed “majorities think that Trump went too far” and “believe telling a person of color to go back to the country they came from is a racist thing to say.”
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