One Big Change
Most of press corps got so distracted by Trump’s 2016 greatest hits Tuesday night that they missed the one big piece of news – the incumbent at times focused on VOTERS over himself.
My take: There are countless ways to slice and dice Donald Trump’s chances for re-election, but if you had to choose one measure, it should be this: can he convince enough voters that he is better than the eventual Democratic presidential nominee on the question of who “cares about people like me”?
Another way to put it is, whose side are you on?
What was most striking about the president’s campaign kickoff speech was not his broadsides against Hillary Clinton, the media, DC, Joe Biden, etc.
Instead, what matters most was Trump’s focus on the voter. His unusual rhetorical discipline, clearly done in consultation with his advisers and much-in-the-news pollsters, was intended to change the perception of the incumbent as a narcissistic, self-involved, selfish child.
In Orlando, the Mueller investigation was not an attack on Donald John Trump; it was an attack on the voters.
“It’s not about us but you,” Trump said.
“They tried to take away your dignity and your destiny. But we will never let them do that, will we?”
Take a look at this pair of presidential tweets, one of which came shortly after he finished speaking, intended to reinforce the message:
Don’t ever forget – this election is about YOU. It is about YOUR family, YOUR future, & the fate of YOUR COUNTRY. We begin our campaign with the best record, the best results, the best agenda, & the only positive VISION for our Country’s future! #Trump2020
Together, we are breaking the most sacred rule in Washington Politics: we are KEEPING our promises to the American People. Because my only special interest is YOU! #Trump2020
Some of the news coverage of the event made passing reference to this seminal rhetorical change, but mostly led with the lack of specifics, the exaggerations, the repetition of past themes and bête noires, the bragging about the economy, and the spectacle of the event itself.
All those points are super important too, as signs of where Trump’s head is at and a map to what to expect in the future.
But the “understands people like me” battle is one of the perennial touchstones for figuring out who is going to win a presidential election. Research by both parties suggests that Trump is in danger of losing this fight to the Democrats for two reasons.
First, his usual “me, me, me” style is a turnoff to many of the voters who will decide the election, including and especially suburban women. By typically radiating self-pity over his press coverage and the Mueller investigation, Trump risks looking selfish and the opposite of a public servant.
Bill Clinton was the master at projecting the alternative sensibility, with lines directed to his political enemies and the voters such as “they want to make this election about my yesterdays; I want to make it about your tomorrows.”
Second, Democrats plan to make the case that Trump’s policies have been bad for those same persuadable voters, and on issues such as health care, the economy, the environment, and more, the opposition will have a strong case. At some point, Trump will have to grapple with the specifics of the allegations that his presidency hasn’t delivered as he promised or claims.
But the first step in getting voters to believe that you are on their side is telling them that you are on their side.
Trump might not keep up the discipline to continue repeating this idea. He gets bored easily when it comes to staying on message. And the Democrats might nominate someone who is simply a more compelling “I feel your pain” political athlete in addressing voters.
Again, policy and reality matter more than rhetoric, or at least they should. But the story of Orlando is that Trump and his advisers realize he has to recast his image on this vital metric, or he will likely lose.
How consistent and effective he is in changing the impression his past behavior and words have left will go as far in determining if he wins a second term as any other variable.
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