In the modern political era, there’s no precedent for a sitting president, eyeing a re-election campaign, downplaying the importance of swing voters. And yet, there was Donald Trump making that case during his interview with Time magazine.
Despite the trappings of convention, however, Trump has for the most part thrown out the playbook for incumbency. The last three two-term Presidents were lifted in important ways by a bipartisan message. Bill Clinton ran on the 1994 crime bill and tax reform. George W. Bush ran on keeping America safe in the wake of 9/11. Barack Obama reminded voters that Osama bin Laden was dead and General Motors was alive.
Trump, who lost the popular vote in 2016 and is the only President in the history of Gallup polling never to crack 50% approval, says he’s ready to defy that legacy. “I think my base is so strong, I’m not sure that I have to do that,” he tells TIME, after being asked whether he should reach out to swing voters.
Looking over the full transcript, Time specifically asked the president about taking this opportunity, while Democratic candidates fight among themselves, to “reach out” beyond his core Republican base.
The president said that “might happen,” but thanks to what Trump sees as the strength of his base, he’s “not sure” that he has to do that.
It’s a striking perspective, not just as a strategic matter – common sense suggests an unpopular president who lost the popular vote should be desperate to expand his support – but also because it tells us what to expect from Trump in the coming months.
To hear him tell it, the voters that matter to him are those who are already his most rabid followers. If Trump sticks to this vision, it means his agenda between now and Election Day 2020 will prioritize keeping his base happy, motivated, and engaged.
And who knows, maybe that’ll work out well for the president. Maybe the pro-Trump Republican base will be just big enough to carry him across the finish line and give him a second term.
But as Ron Brownstein wrote in The Atlantic yesterday, the funny thing about a base-mobilization strategy is its downsides.
…Trump’s unrelenting emphasis on stoking that base – both in his rhetoric and through his policies – creates two distinct but interrelated problems for his reelection. One is that he’s providing the fuel for Democrats to mobilize their own core constituencies, particularly young people and nonwhite voters. The second problem is even more formidable and may represent the biggest obstacle to winning a second term: His polarizing approach to the presidency is alienating an unusually large number of voters satisfied with the economy.
By all appearances, Trump doesn’t appreciate, or even acknowledge, this dynamic at all. He won last time with a narrow electoral focus; the president’s satisfied with the adoring crowds he sees at his events; and he’s convinced himself that polls are little more than “suppression” tactics cooked up by his enemies as part of an elaborate conspiracy.
But with a divided electorate, national candidates who focus exclusively on their base are taking an enormous risk.