In public, President Donald Trump and his campaign team project a sense of optimism and bravado. When they meet with Republican donors and state party leaders, presidential aides insist they are fully capable of achieving a close victory over Joe Biden on Nov. 3.
On television and in campaign appearances, Trump and his children dismiss public polls that suggest that his prospects are bleak. The president’s calendar of events is packed through Election Day, with aides predicting a thrice-a-day rally schedule in the final weeks of the race. When Trump contemplates the prospect of defeat, he does so in a tone of denial and disbelief.
“Could you imagine if I lose?” he asked a crowd Friday.
In private, most members of Trump’s team acknowledge that is not a far-fetched possibility.
Away from their candidate and the television cameras, some of Trump’s aides are quietly conceding just how dire his political predicament appears to be, and his inner circle has returned to a state of recriminations and backbiting. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, is drawing furious blame from the president and some political advisers for his handling of Trump’s recent hospitalization, and he is seen as unlikely to hold onto his job past Election Day.
Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, has maintained to senior Republicans that the president has a path forward in the race but at times has conceded it is narrow.
Some midlevel aides on the campaign have even begun inquiring about employment on Capitol Hill after the election, apparently under the assumption that there will not be a second Trump administration for them to serve in. (It is not clear how appealing the Trump campaign might be as a résumé line for private-sector employers).
Less than three weeks before Election Day, there is now an extraordinary gulf separating Trump’s experience of the campaign from the more sobering political assessments of a number of party officials and operatives, according to interviews with nearly a dozen Republican strategists, White House allies and elected officials. Among some of Trump’s lieutenants, there is an attitude of grit mixed with resignation: a sense that the best they can do for the final stretch is to keep the president occupied, happy and off Twitter as much as possible, rather than producing a major shift in strategy.
Often, their biggest obstacle is Trump himself.
Instead of delivering a focused closing message aimed at changing people’s perceptions about his handling of the coronavirus, or making a case for why he can revive the economy better than Biden can, Trump is spending the remaining days on a familiar mix of personal grievances, attacks on his opponents and obfuscations. He has portrayed himself as a victim, dodged questions about his own coronavirus testing, attacked his attorney general and the FBI director and equivocated on the benefits of mask-wearing.
Rather than drawing a consistent contrast with Biden on the economy, strategists say, the president’s preference is to attack Biden’s son Hunter over his business dealings and to hurl personal insults like “Sleepy Joe” against a candidate whose favorability ratings are much higher than Trump’s.
“A lot of Republican consultants are frustrated because we want the president’s campaign to be laser-focused on the economy,” said David Kochel, a Republican strategist in Iowa. “Their best message is: Trump built a great economy” and COVID-19 damaged it, and Trump is a better option than Biden to restore it, he said.
“Our base loves the stuff about Hunter Biden, laptops and Mayor Giuliani,” Kochel added. “But they’re already voting for Trump.”
Before Trump’s upset win in 2016, his campaign also mixed public boasting with private anxiety about the apparent likelihood of defeat. But then, unlike now, Trump closed the race with a jackhammer message attacking Hillary Clinton as a corrupt insider and promising sweeping economic changes — an argument far clearer than what he is offering today.
Stepien and other campaign leaders, including Jason Miller, a senior strategist, have stressed to Republicans in Washington that they expect to outperform the public polls. They say their own data suggests a closer race in a number of states, including Arizona and Pennsylvania, than surveys conducted by news organizations. They are wagering that voter registration and the turnout machinery that Trump’s team has built over the past four years will ultimately give them an edge in narrowly divided states on Election Day.
Still, some prominent Republicans have noted in newly direct language the possibility — and even the likelihood — of defeat for the president. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close ally, said this past week that Democrats had “a good chance of winning the White House,” while Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska said his party might be facing a “blood bath.”
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Although fear of retaliation by Trump has muzzled most members of the party, strategists are deeply concerned that Trump might spend the final weeks of the campaign entertaining and energizing his existing supporters while eschewing any concerted effort to find new ones — an approach that could cripple other Republicans running for office.
Ken Spain, a Republican strategist, said Trump was “not delivering a consistent message at the most critical juncture of the campaign.”
“The president appears to have doubled down on a base election strategy,” he said, “while Republicans down ballot must figure out a way to appeal to independent voters in states like North Carolina and Maine and Michigan.”
Trump’s advisers are hopeful they can use the days through the next debate to change the trajectory of the race. The president is not likely to hold formal debate preparation sessions, in no small part because half of the people in his previous sessions, including Trump, contracted the coronavirus.
There is also growing frustration among congressional Republicans that the White House has not driven a strong positive message about Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination — a confirmation battle that Republicans until recently regarded as their best chance for a political turnaround.
Republicans and allies of the president have trained their ire specifically on Meadows, viewing some of his actions, like showing up at Barrett’s hearings, as a form of personal brand-building.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)In some respects, the trajectory of Trump’s campaign in its final weeks reflects long-standing structural weaknesses and internal divisions.
From the start, the campaign has never had a dominant strategist — that role has always been played by a president with a dim view of the political professional class. In an interview in July with The New York Times, Jared Kushner, a White House adviser and the president’s son-in-law, was candid about who was in charge of the 2020 race: Trump, he said, was “really the campaign manager at the end of the day.”
Trump’s first campaign manager, Brad Parscale, focused heavily on building online infrastructure and using it to raise money, while Kushner oversaw his work.
Stepien, who replaced Parscale in July, is regarded in Washington as a capable nuts-and-bolts tactician. But with a small window of time left before the election, he has not attempted to redraw Trump’s playbook.
For much of the past four years, Kushner had cast himself as the chief executive of the reelection effort, but he pulled back from that role during the summer and in September, when the political environment had clearly soured. Instead, he thrust himself into a number of diplomatic negotiations in the Middle East that have little evident salience in the election. He has become more engaged in recent weeks, officials said.
Trump’s advisers have not given up hope for a reversal in fortune. Facing a financial crunch, his campaign appears to be concentrating its advertising on a handful of states that provide a slim route to an Electoral College victory: the Sun Belt battlegrounds of Florida, Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina, as well as Pennsylvania, the largest Northern swing state, according to data from the media tracking firm Advertising Analytics. Trump’s travel last week and in the coming days is largely mirroring those priorities.
The campaign has made larger advertising reservations starting next week in states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Iowa, although it has frequently adjusted or canceled bookings as their start dates have approached.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Many Republicans have resorted to hoping that the president might be disciplined enough for the remaining 16 days to narrow the gap with Biden and salvage the party’s House and Senate candidates.
But few people close to Trump present the path ahead to him in those terms, Republicans say. They recognize that the president knows he outpolls most GOP candidates in their own districts or states and that suggesting to him that he is on track to lose would be unlikely to produce constructive results.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)Trump, in the meantime, is discussing diversions from his own schedule to help people he cares about personally; for instance, he is likely to schedule an event with Graham. Although the trip would overlap with a North Carolina media market, and is personally pleasing to Trump, it would do little to help his own electoral map.
It is that kind of distraction that has frustrations mounting on Capitol Hill and even within the West Wing, over what many Republicans regard as a wasted October so far, including the decision to spurn a second debate.
“The reality is they are probably out of time,” said Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican strategist. “They desperately needed the debate to have a larger audience and to have an opportunity to provide some kind of contrast that would change the race trajectory, meaning a different Trump or an opportunity for a Biden gaffe. That was their best hope for a Hail Mary.”