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What Does That Trump Interview Tell Us About His 2020 Strategy?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Last week, ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos followed President Trump both on the campaign trail in Iowa and at the White House. And much of the focus was on Trump’s reelection prospects, including how he is doing in the polls and what role special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections will play in his campaigning. And tonight in Orlando, Florida, Trump will officially kick off his reelection campaign.

Trump’s interview with ABC covered a lot of ground, but what do we think will dominate the 2020 campaign, from the issues we think pose the greatest risk for him to the issues we think play to his advantage?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Well, if Trump has his way, he’ll just talk over and over again about how great the economy is doing.

He mentioned that a lot in the ABC interview.

He listed among his top accomplishments his tax cuts and his deregulation push. And he said that the reason many immigrants are still coming to the U.S. is because “the economy is so good.”

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): The economy doing well is definitely a big part of Trump’s broader message. For Republican-leaning voters, I assume that he will emphasize his judicial appointments and the 2017 tax plan as well.

nrakich: Yeah, judicial appointments — specifically, the Supreme Court — were a big motivator for Republicans to vote for Trump in 2016.

And it could be a reason that some moderate Republicans who still aren’t thrilled with Trump (and who maybe voted for Democrats in 2018) vote for Trump in 2020.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I put presidential reelection strategies into three categories: 1) run on the status quo (which Trump seems poised to do), 2) run on issues that weren’t part of your first campaign (think Bush in 2004 and the new focus on the war on terror), and 3) run against your opponent. This final one is risky for an incumbent, but it’s hard to imagine that Trump won’t incorporate some of that in his reelection strategy. After all, you already see him talking about Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.

sarahf: But why then did Trump spend so much of the interview talking about the Mueller report? What’s his strategy there?

julia_azari: As usual, I’m of two minds on the strategical usefulness of talking about the Mueller report. On the one hand, why draw attention to a serious and important vulnerability?!

On the other hand, this could help consolidate the Republican coalition by highlighting that Trump’s presidency has been uniquely controversial and unfairly criticized.

From ABC News:

Trump defends decision not to sit for an in-person interview with Mueller: Part 5

nrakich: I hear that, Julia, but I think Republicans who side with Trump on Russia/Mueller stuff are already pretty consolidated.

I just don’t think Trump has a strategy there. He got a lot of bad press for saying that he’d consider listening if another country offered him information on his 2020 opponent. That just felt like a careless statement, not something calculated.

sarahf: I think Trump might be choosing to continue to talk about the Mueller report so as to make the “no collusion” and “total exoneration” narratives stick.

But then again, I tend to agree with Nathaniel that those Republicans are already consolidated around Trump.

From ABC News:

Trump responds to answering questions about obstruction

julia_azari: Yeah, I can’t say that my takeaway from the interview was “what a tightly scripted and strategic politician.” But the Mueller stuff could end up being strategic anyway. Because I’m not totally sure about the “already consolidated” point. We’ve written about “reluctant Trumpers” in the past, and that seems like a pivotal constituency coming into 2020. And using the Mueller report as a campaign talking point might be a way of making them feel like their “team” — led by the most powerful Republican in the country — is being attacked. This might make them feel defensive and ensure that they come back into the fold for 2020.

perry: I agree with Julia that the Mueller investigation has become part of the partisan divide, with Democrats much more inclined than Republicans to take the investigation seriously. So attacking the report probably does fit into Trump’s broader strategy.

sarahf: Yeah, it makes sense that there is still a battle over the narrative of the Mueller report, but I do wonder how good of a strategy it is for Trump, especially when it comes to attracting swing voters. Trump didn’t spend too much time talking about this strategy in the interview with ABC, but there was an emphasis on his underperformance in some early internal polls (although he denied the existence of these polls in the interview).

And I know, Perry, you’ve written that at this stage, general election polls don’t mean much. Yet on Sunday, NBC News reported that his campaign had fired some of the pollsters after some internal polls were leaked to the media. Why do we think Trump is reacting this way?

perry: The “firing pollsters” stories are weird, because I don’t totally know what Trump’s underlying concern is: Was it that the president was mad about the numbers themselves or that he didn’t like that they were leaked in the first place?

The second concern is totally valid — most politicians don’t like internal campaign information to be released publicly, particularly information that isn’t good. The first concern not as much. It’s hard for me to evaluate whether Trump is making an odd move in firing the pollsters without knowing exactly why he did this.

From ABC News:

Trump campaign has cut ties with some of its pollsters after data was leaked

nrakich: Agreed, Perry. The official reason might have been because they were leaked, but given that the president has dismissed polls that show him behind as “fake,” it seems likely that the fact that he didn’t like the numbers played into it.

But this is incredibly risky. Internal polls can be misleading because campaigns release them selectively, so the public doesn’t have much context to understand them. But they can also mislead the candidate, because pollsters might consciously or subconsciously try to find better numbers to please their client. And it obviously hurts a campaign if it doesn’t have an accurate picture of where it stands in the race. But after Trump fires those pollsters, do you think his remaining pollsters will be less likely to share bad numbers with him?

julia_azari: Trump has always had an odd relationship to public support. He was a factional nominee in the 2016 Republican primary and lost the popular vote in the general election. But both victories were unexpected (especially the general, as Hillary Clinton led in the polls), so that he was able to pull off the upset has given him a lot of public currency.

His view of politics is very personal, and he likes to talk about being popular. So it’s not surprising that, with an election approaching, polls would be a central concern now.

perry: Maybe these pollsters (or people associated with them) leaked the numbers to show Trump how vulnerable he is in 2020 and to potentially push him toward a different approach (i.e., maybe Trump’s campaign aides want him to take more steps to appeal to swing voters as opposed to his base). And then he fired them for leaking because the leaks were part of a broader disagreement over the campaign’s strategy.

But what jumped out at me was that the numbers in the internal polls were so bad. The polls shared with ABC News found Biden with a double-digit lead over Trump in Pennsylvania (55-39) and Wisconsin (51-41) in March. The same polls showed Biden with a 7-point lead in Florida, and in Texas, a state with a strong GOP-lean, the president led by only 2 points.

Yes, these polls are from March of the year before the election and, for the reasons Nathaniel outlined above, should be treated with caution. But maybe they shouldn’t be entirely dismissed either?

nrakich: When read correctly, early polls can be perfectly valid pictures of where the race stands today.

But it’s just common sense that the state of the race today will not necessarily be the state of the race in November 2020.

perry: Like, roughly 43 percent of Americans approve of the job that Trump is doing, compared with the 46 percent of the electorate that backed him in 2016. And that gap matters, because he has almost no chance if only 43 percent of people vote for him. So he has to get some people outside of those who approve of him to back him.

I doubt that Trump will win only 43 percent of the vote, but he is fairly unpopular. Congressional Republicans won about 45 percent of the vote in the 2018 midterm elections (that’s the national House vote), compared with 53 percent for Democrats — and I would argue that House Republicans are far less controversial than Trump is.

nrakich: Remember, too, that polls include undecided voters, who will come off the fence one way or another in an actual election. So Trump will likely get more than 43 percent of the vote merely because of that.

sarahf: I do think it’s interesting, though, that Biden seems to be trying to make his candidacy about Trump and that Trump seems to be portraying Biden as his No. 1 opponent. On the one hand, it makes sense because Biden is the early polling front-runner, but I wonder if something else is happening there, regarding narrative setting.

Is it good for Trump if Biden wins the nomination?

perry: In other words, is Trump trying to pick his opponent?

julia_azari: Yup — there was even a Frank Bruni column in The New York Times on this recently.

nrakich: I tend to think it’s just Trump reacting to the candidate getting the most attention on cable news.

But to the extent that there is a strategy, I suspect that it’s to try to drive down candidates’ favorable ratings early, possibly resulting in a weaker Democratic nominee (whether it’s Biden or a Biden alternative).

From ABC News:

Trump says ‘the polls don’t exist’ in tell-all interview

julia_azari: I think empirically, candidates may not matter all that much given the increased levels of polarization in American politics. I also think that once the incumbent starts really criticizing a challenger, that can be perceived as a sign of weakness. (Compare, for example, George W. Bush’s fairly negative campaign against John Kerry in 2004 with Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign touting his own accomplishments or Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” theme. All incumbents won, but 2004 was by far the closest race.)

nrakich: Yeah, I’m torn on that. I agree that candidates don’t matter much. But they can matter a bit, like they seemed to in 2016 — Hillary Clinton’s scandals were a distraction for her, Donald Trump’s straight talk helped him do better than a typical Republican does among white working-class voters, etc.

Presidential candidates also drive campaign coverage a lot more than Senate or House candidates do. I definitely agree that candidates barely matter in those races.

perry: I have no idea. The candidates who are polling leaders at the moment — Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Harris, Warren — have strengths and weaknesses. If Trump has some secret plan to boost one Democrat over the others, I wouldn’t care that much — it’s not clear to me that Trump is some brilliant political mastermind who can discern which opponent is best for him.

That said, I do think both the leaked internal campaign polls and the latest Fox News and Quinnipiac University polls are great for Biden. The Fox and Quinnipiac polls not only show Biden with double-digit leads in head-to-head matchups against Trump, but Biden is doing better against Trump than any of the other Democrats are.

I’m very, very skeptical that this data matters much in terms of projecting what happens next November, but a big part of Biden’s message to Democratic primary voters is that he’s the best choice to take on Trump — and these polls help him make that case.

nrakich: I think what those Quinnipiac polls tell us is that Biden right now is better-liked than Trump is. But remember, Trump has spent the last three years getting attacked nonstop by Democrats, while Biden has just barely begun to get criticized.

sarahf: It wasn’t mentioned in the ABC interview, but perhaps there is more grassroots support for Trump than is currently reflected in polls. I’m thinking specifically of how he used Facebook to his advantage in 2016, and Trump seems to be rapidly expanding his online presence for 2020.

But OK, what issues can Trump play to his advantage? In the ABC interview, he said he’d announce a … health care plan … soon? Good idea? Bad idea?

nrakich: I guess it depends?

Health care was hugely important to voters in last year’s midterms, and Democrats have campaigned on protecting it. So it makes sense that Trump would want to compete with that.

julia_azari: True, but this is an issue where the priorities of the Republican Party are difficult to reconcile with where the country is.

nrakich: If Trump’s plan threatens the Affordable Care Act, it will likely hurt him — the ACA and especially provisions like covering preexisting conditions are popular.

But I’m also not sure Trump actually is making a health care plan — he’s said that before and not delivered anything. In March, for example, Trump said Republicans would be the party of health care. But several days later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he did not plan to put a Republican health care plan up for a vote in the Senate.

sarahf: Fair. He definitely didn’t expand upon his health care vision, but I am surprised that he didn’t use it as an opportunity to attack health care proposals among Democratic presidential candidates as “socialized medicine” or something similar.

perry: I do think if Trump used health care as a way to cast Democrats as favoring socialism, it could be potent for him — for example, he could lean in hard to branding “Medicare for All” as a socialist policy.

After all, Americans have fairly negative views of socialism. And I doubt that most Americans really know how health care works in countries that have government-run systems. Voters are also skeptical about making college free, another idea being pushed by some Democratic presidential candidates.

Personally, I think the liberal drift of the Democratic Party is potentially a great issue for Trump, if he’s able to frame it as Democrats wanting to make everything free, as opposed to just Democrats wanting to make college or health care cheaper.

julia_azari: Perry, I can also see that. If Warren or Sanders end up getting nominated, that’s a powerful line. Harder with Harris or Biden, I think.

nrakich: But if Sanders is the nominee and runs on single-payer health care, the ironic thing is that Trump can just run on maintaining Obamacare and probably have the upper hand on health care. Voters tend to be protective of the status quo on that issue.

sarahf: But that would require a complete 180 from Trump! Hard to imagine. OK, to wrap — the ABC interview with the president was intended to offer Americans a candid view of how Trump is approaching reelection. What did you walk away with as his key message for 2020 and what will you be keeping an eye on as the race develops?

julia_azari: To me, it seemed like a lot of his ideas were at odds with each other — the Mueller report was a dishonest “witch hunt,” but it also exonerated him. Or he celebrated the number of regulations he rolled back but is now looking to push a new health care plan?

As I mentioned at the beginning of the chat, I think Trump’s presidential reelection strategy might be to run on the status quo, which isn’t a bad idea. But the fact that Trump also likes to be the focus of attention certainly complicates that strategy.

perry: My big question is: How will Trump talk about immigration? He is deeply invested in his policies on that issue. At the same time, his policies are quite unpopular. And this issue is also complicated politically because it’s not clear that the Democrats have a fully fleshed out immigration agenda and if they develop one, theirs will probably be unpopular, too.

So I will be curious to see how Trump talks about his immigration policies in the campaign — and how Democrats respond.

nrakich: I just saw the same old Trump — undisciplined and dismissive of any criticism or bad news. He probably thinks that will work for him in 2020 because it worked in 2016, but I think that’s wishful thinking. A lot of stuff had to go right for him in 2016, including election fundamentals, a weak opponent, a favorable Electoral College map … and don’t forget the timing of then-FBI Director James Comey’s letter resurfacing Clinton’s email controversy.

I’ll be watching for any sign he’s (God help me for using this word) pivoting to swing voters, because I think he needs to make an adjustment from what he’s doing now to get to a majority. (It’s certainly possible he can win reelection without a majority, but it would certainly be harder.)

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.