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What Should Trump’s 2020 Strategy Be In 2019?

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

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): After a midterm election, it’s not unusual for a president to reassess strategy and approach and make appeals to the “middle” or to “reach across the aisle.” But we’re talking about President Trump, who currently doesn’t have a good track record of working with Democrats. So, what evidence do we have that he will try a different approach? And is trying a more bipartisan approach even a good idea?

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): We’ve been waiting for the fabled “Trump pivot” for, what, two years now? I’m not counting on it happening next year.

sarahf: But his polling numbers aren’t good. It really seems as though he’s only popular in rural parts of the country.

What does that mean for 2020? Doesn’t he have to start to appeal to more groups than his base?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Well, the short answer is “yes”!

I’m not sure how Trump’s efforts to appeal to more groups will go. He told a group of reporters on Tuesday during a meeting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that he will shut down the government if he doesn’t get funding for his border wall. People don’t generally like it when the government shuts down.

sarahf: But on playing hardball on the border wall as a strategy — isn’t it to some extent more important that Trump deliver on that campaign promise to his supporters, regardless of the political fallout?

geoffrey.skelley: Problem is, the border wall idea is unpopular.

So this is a complete play to the base, which Trump arguably already has locked up. If he’s looking to improve his fortunes, pursuing a government shutdown for something that the majority of Americans oppose doesn’t seem wise.

clare.malone: Yeah … I mean not to sound like a joke here, but, man, they really should have taken infrastructure week seriously!

Imagine how popular a bill funding infrastructure projects would actually be. And I’m sure to appease Trump, you could have stuck in some border wall provisions.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I don’t think announcing you are excited about a government shutdown is smart.

sarahf: If Trump’s meeting with Schumer and Pelosi is any indication of what is in store, it seems like Trump won’t be trying a new strategy of appealing to the middle anytime soon.

So … to play devil’s advocate for a moment, is not appealing to a common ground a smart move? President Obama tried to compromise with Republicans, but, arguably, that didn’t work out too well for him and the Democratic Party.

clare.malone: I don’t really see the administration making real moves to open up other avenues of policy discussion. It just seems so hammered by other things — staffing issues and deflecting potential campaign finance law violations by the president.

perry: Obama had this vision for working with Republicans in 2011 (after the Democrats lost the House in 2010), and that fell apart. Trump seems to get the polarized nature of our politics better than most people. I think fighting with Pelosi and Schumer is not the worst idea. Just don’t force a government shutdown over the wall.

sarahf: So if Trump shouldn’t be fighting quite so aggressively for the wall, what would be a smarter move for him?

clare.malone: I’m not sure, Sarah, what the right issue for him is. The trade war stuff is fraught, obviously, and there are murmurs from the financial world about a possible financial crisis on the horizon.

perry: The Democrats are saying they want to investigate Trump aggressively. I think he can make that into a pretty compelling argument about Democrats trying to reverse the will of those who voted for him.

clare.malone: He doesn’t have a lot of places to go right now that aren’t divisive. And the White House doesn’t seem to have a lot of will right now to talk about these non-divisive issues.

geoffrey.skelley: Early on in Trump’s administration, Gallup found strong bipartisan support for proposals requiring companies to provide paid family leave for employees after the birth of a child and a plan to spend over $1 trillion on infrastructure. So perhaps those are places to start.

clare.malone: That’s two votes for infrastructure!

An Ivanka Trump resurgence with family leave??

geoffrey.skelley: Yes, that’s my thought too. You could have the first daughter out there pushing a new family leave proposal.

perry: I just don’t think either of those ideas will be accepted by Republicans in the Senate.

That’s part of Trump’s challenge: Any policy ideas he has must be adopted by the GOP-controlled Senate, too. So it’s not just him dealing and finding compromise with the Democrats.

He can’t really move to the left in any meaningful way.

clare.malone: Perry, why do you think infrastructure would be perceived as moving to the left?

perry: Any infrastructure bill that Pelosi would support would also include billions of federal dollars in spending that the House Freedom Caucus and many Senate Republicans won’t be interested in.

clare.malone: But what if you slipped in something for the border wall? Isn’t that a possible scenario?

I guess it’s also the old GOP priorities vs. the new Trump GOP priorities playing out vis-à-vis spending and financing a marquee campaign promise.

geoffrey.skelley: Having the Senate pass an infrastructure bill with money for a border wall would put pressure on Democrats in the House. Trump could then claim that House Democrats were holding up money that would rebuild the country — dare I say, “make America great again”?

But it is definitely tough to see conservative Republicans in the Senate going for it.

perry: I think Trump has two broad choices: On the one hand, he could tone down his rhetoric, hire a very experienced chief of staff, remove his son-in-law and daughter from top administration jobs, and try to become a less divisive figure. He could, say, model himself after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who is very popular. On the other hand, he could amplify the country’s current political divisions and make the 2020 election a debate over which party is hated the most.

clare.malone: I feel like I know the answer to this …

sarahf: Same …

perry: I think the second path is easier for him and potentially a political winner.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah …

clare.malone: So we’ve decided! Compromise is dead!

geoffrey.skelley: It’s the path that Trump is familiar with and therefore more comfortable with.

sarahf: OK, so does that mean any hopes for bipartisan legislation in this Congress are misplaced? I’m thinking of the criminal justice reform bill that a bipartisan group of senators has pushed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring up for a vote — an effort that the president has supported.

clare.malone: That bill has had some longer-term bipartisan support, so there’s still some hope, perhaps.

perry: I think small bills like that can pass, but that won’t define Trump and his presidency.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, it’s difficult to come off as bipartisan when, theoretically, you sign that into law and then the next minute you’re saying that you are proud to shut down the government.

sarahf: OK, I think it’s safe to say that we all think Trump’s strategy moving forward appears to be more of the same: Democrats are toxic to his agenda. But with special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, is that really the best strategy to deflect attention?

According to a recent poll, the share of Americans who approve of how Trump is handling the investigation has dropped. (Granted, Mueller’s numbers are down, too).

geoffrey.skelley: If the Mueller investigation really is an existential threat to the president, it makes sense that he would pursue a course to make it as partisan as possible. The House’s new Democratic majority could also help Trump — it gives him a partisan opponent to play off of, rather than just trying to undermine Mueller.

perry: Mueller’s numbers are not great in that poll. Trump has successfully poisoned that probe in the minds of Republicans. As a citizen, I think Trump’s attacks on the news media, law enforcement and other institutions are deeply problematic. But as a person who studies elections, I think attacking these institutions has been very smart politically. Barring Mueller finding some very clear evidence of, say, Trump encouraging the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, I don’t think Republican voters will take Mueller’s findings that seriously.

geoffrey.skelley: Of course, the scandal is not only affecting the president’s strategy, it’s also affecting his ability to hire staff, I’m sure. Want to be the president’s new chief of staff? Prepare to lawyer up.

sarahf: Right, and while appointing different chiefs of staff isn’t unusual (although Trump has moved at a faster pace than his predecessors), it does seem as if the coalition that Trump brought with him to the White House is now gone?

perry: To me, Trump’s biggest threat is not Mueller, but losing in 2020. To win re-election, he needs to get back some suburban voters or increase his margin even more among white people without college degrees — and that should be his sole focus moving forward.

It’s not clear how much Trump cares about policy or has specific goals for the next two years. I could imagine him picking an establishment Republican-type like Mitt Romney as chief of staff. If that person became a major force in the administration and Trump listened to him or her, that would help him win suburban voters.

But Trump could also go the more conservative route and pick Rep. Mark Meadows, one of the leaders of the House Freedom Caucus. It looks as if Meadows even wants the job. And then, of course, Trump could try to win every white voter without a college degree.

clare.malone: Or you could easily imagine him picking a non-entity as chief of staff, someone who bends to Trump’s whims.

perry: And that would be a mistake.

clare.malone: And not really do much to shore up white suburban voters.

perry: I also assume that is what he will do.

sarahf: At this point, doesn’t Trump’s path to electoral victory depend on winning at least some suburban voters?

geoffrey.skelley: Oh absolutely. Trump probably can’t win Michigan or Pennsylvania if he’s losing the suburbs as badly as Republicans did in the midterms, and that sort of performance could make a state like Arizona a battleground, too. Still, midterms are not good predictors of the next presidential election, so the 2018 results are far from determinative. But they are a warning.

perry: Unless he gets to, say, 85 percent with whites who don’t have degrees. (Trump won 64 percent of that group in 2016.) Then he’s OK.

I just think he should probably have a strategy of some kind. When you are considering Nick Ayers, Chris Christie or Mark Meadows to be your chief of staff, it suggests that you really have no strategy. Those people have little in common beyond being Republicans.

I also think he could go the full Stephen Miller route, and that might be a path to victory. Dial up the immigration policy even more and keep coming back to issues that divide people along racial and cultural lines, like the migrant caravan or kneeling by NFL players.

geoffrey.skelley: Demographics aren’t destiny. But if Republicans don’t recover a bit in the suburbs, Trump could have a tough time winning re-election. And I think that’s the danger of an all-in Stephen Miller strategy. It’s a question of diminishing returns — how much more of the non-college-educated white vote can Trump get?

perry: That’s what I don’t know. I’m not sure he hit his limit in 2016.


geoffrey.skelley: Me neither.

clare.malone: So to return to the original premise: What Trump should do, for starters, to increase his chances of winning in 2020 is to make more establishment GOP decisions when it comes to staffing and rhetoric.

But we also don’t think he’ll actually do either of those things.

sarahf: Yeah, I think this conversation has made me realize that looking at Trump’s approval rating isn’t perhaps as telling as we think.

We think it matters because unpopular presidents don’t necessarily get re-elected (see Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush). But maybe just ensuring your opponent is less popular than you is enough.

perry: That’s what I think.

In 2018, Democrats had 435 different candidates (a different candidate in every House race). In 2020, they have to run a single candidate. And my guess is that Trump will try to demonize that person (and maybe succeed).

geoffrey.skelley: Recall that both Trump and Hillary Clinton were very unpopular, and Trump still won. He will want to discredit his eventual Democratic opponent. And his approval rating may not need to be much above 45 percent to win a close, partisan race.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.