We know that the Trump campaign is a mess, because anything having to do with bunker-cowering Donald Trump is a veritable dumpster fire. For months we’ve been hearing rumors that campaign manager Brad Parscale is on the verge of being fired, or is being sidelined, all because his boss’ polling showed him losing to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. And that was months ago, when Biden wasn't winning by that much.
This new look inside the campaign by The New York Times is more of the same: a campaign in near-panic over an electoral map that is slipping away from them. But if you read closely beyond the deliciously enjoyable headlines, you see a deeper problem with the campaign: Either Trump is being Trump and dictating strategy based on his “gut” and random, uncontrollable impulses, or his campaign manager really is an f’n moron.
So first, the top-lines. The polling is showing the Trump campaign a dark picture: “President Trump is facing the bleakest outlook for his re-election bid so far, with his polling numbers plunging in both public and private surveys and his campaign beginning to worry about his standing in states like Ohio and Iowa that he carried by wide margins four years ago.”
Given our own tracking polls at Civiqs, we know that his personal approval ratings are faltering, including the first cracks in his support among white noncollege voters. We know that the current mass protests around the country are actually boosting support for the movement, putting Trump on the wrong side of public opinion. We know that the public is not happy with Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, that thing that is still a thing (approval is just 38-60). And we know that the public doesn’t trust Trump on jobs.
Our polling in North Carolina and Georgia—two states that Trump won comfortably in 2016—shows him in dire straits, losing to Biden. And we’re not the only ones showing him losing in key battlegrounds. Just imagine what Trump must’ve felt when this flashed out on the screen:
Things got so dire in the campaign, actually, that they made up a fake poll to make him feel better. No joke! “At times, his allies have taken unusual steps to try to calm his frustration, including commissioning and then leaking a poll last month that suggested that Mr. Trump had gained ground rapidly on Mr. Biden,” the Times reports. And it worked! When asked about his flagging poll numbers by reporters, Trump responded, “I have other polls where I’m winning.” Okay then!
So yes, this is the obvious top-line: Trump is losing, his campaign knows he’s losing, and they’re going to hilarious lengths to keep the #BunkerBaby pacified. But here’s the part that points to even deeper problems in the campaign:
Over the past few weeks, the president’s operation has spent about $1.7 million on advertising in just three states he carried in 2016 — Ohio, Iowa and Arizona — that it had hoped would not be competitive at all this year. Much of that sum went to a concentrated two-week barrage in Ohio ...
There’s no doubt that some polling has shown Ohio creeping into contention. Personally I don’t buy it, but it’s hard to ignore the growing list of polls showing a tight race. But here’s the thing: If Trump is fighting to hold onto Ohio, he’s already lost the race.
Here are the 2016 red states with the closest margins:
The first seven states on this list are, not coincidentally, the seven battleground states I’ve been talking about since last year. Trump hasn't led in any public poll in the top six of those states for some time. And in Georgia, all the polling shows an effectively tied race.
Even without Georgia (or the Omaha, Nebraska, electoral college vote that I suspect Biden will win), look at how lopsided the Electoral College picture looks:
So they’re spending money to shore up Ohio, which is for presidential election purposes an irrelevant state! It’s as if Democrats spent money playing defense in Nevada, which Hillary Clinton won by 2.4% in 2016. Because if we lose Nevada (or Minnesota, another close 2016 state), we’ve already lost enough other states to call it a day.
Or to put it another way, Trump’s problem isn’t Ohio. His problem is that his national numbers have tanked, and because of that it’s potentially putting reach-states like Iowa, Ohio, and Texas in play. But Ohio isn’t going to cost him the election. It’ll be the seven battlegrounds that will fall to Biden long before—and by a bigger margin than—Ohio ever will.
The only point in spending money in Ohio is to potentially limit the size of his defeat, not prevent the defeat itself. Because there is no possible scenario in which Biden wins Ohio but loses Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin.
That NY Times story talks about a lack of strategy in the campaign, but focuses on the message part: “’There is no obvious strategy in terms of message,’ said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist based in California. ‘The president defaults to base messages regardless of strategy, thus the campaign becomes a base-driven campaign.’” All true. But there is also no electoral map strategy. Wasting time and resources on Ohio is nonsensical no matter how you look at it.
So there are two options: The first is that Trump is dictating where money should be spent. It would be just like him to assume he knows more than the experts and usurp their judgment. It’s easy to imagine Trump seeing a poll showing him narrowly losing Ohio and panicking, then ordering his campaign to go on the air in a state that won’t be deciding who wins or loses.
That theory fits in with the kind of campaign Trump is running: one based on his own prejudices, score-settling, and whatever else his lizard brain demands. It’s the kind of campaign that thinks mocking Biden for wearing a mask is effective when 72% of Americans agree on the importance of wearing a mask. It’s a campaign build on getting cheers from the QAnon deplorables, not on winning the actual votes he needs to win an actual election.
The other option is that his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, is actually bad at his job. It’s not as if Trump has ever surrounded himself with the best and the brightest. So it’s not a stretch to think that Parscale is just another in a long list of failures inside Trump’s orbit.
Either way, it doesn’t bode well for the Trump campaign in the next five months.
And here’s a bonus thought: TV ads won’t decide this election. No one’s mind will be made up by a 30- or 60-second video. No one needs to see an ad to know what the country looks like—the protests, the deaths, the losing trade wars, the incessant chaos in Washington, D.C. People can see all that for themselves. The only question is whether they want four more years of this nightmare.
In other words, those millions spent on ads in Iowa and Ohio? That’s just money pissed away.