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Three Mistakes the Trump Campaign Can Fix

Ramesh Ponnuru

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump doesn’t want you to pay attention to the polls, which on average show him losing badly to former Vice President Joe Biden in November — losing much worse than he was to Hillary Clinton at this point in 2016. But you don’t have to believe the public polls to see how poorly Trump’s re-election campaign is going. You can just listen to the campaign’s communications director.

Tim Murtaugh said, “Our internal data consistently shows the president running strong against a defined Joe Biden in all of our key states.” That comment, decoded, means that the campaign has been running a poll that lays out attacks on Biden before asking respondents how they will vote — and even that poll doesn’t find Trump winning most key states.

Congressional Republicans have a lot of ideas on how Trump could improve his standing. Most of them amount to wishing the president were an entirely different person: less impulsive, less attracted to nutty conspiracy theories, less voluble. But Trump is also making three mistakes that are within his power to change.

He is, first, spending too much time talking about the wrong things. Journalist David Frum has pointed out how different Trump sounds now than he did in 2016. Then, he beat conventional Republican politicians who dwelt on issues that didn’t move most voters, like deficits and productivity. He addressed issues that voters cared about more than the governors and senators did, such as manufacturing and immigration.

These days Trump is more apt to be talking about issues that obsess him but have limited purchase among his core supporters and none outside it. There’s Obamagate, a convoluted theory about the previous administration’s alleged attempts to abuse power to undermine the current one. Not one voter in 100 could explain it. Since Frum wrote, Trump has repeatedly and baselessly suggested that TV commentator Joe Scarborough is a murderer. These messages — that Trump is a victim and his persecutors are monsters — have little to do with voters, and are unlikely to influence anyone who isn’t already deep in Trumpland.

Trump is, second, placing himself further from the center of public opinion than he did in 2016. Back then, he presented himself as a dealmaker and competent manager who would hire the best people, and wasn’t tied to Republican orthodoxy. He talked about reining in Wall Street and ensuring paid leave for new parents. He said he had no objection in principle to socialized medicine. Fewer voters saw him as conservative than had seen previous Republican presidential nominees that way. Over the course of his presidency, perceptions have changed: A lot more voters now consider Trump “very conservative.”

Some of those voters are presumably very conservative themselves, and are happy about how many of his policies have been standard Republican fare. As president, Trump has signed a corporate tax cut but has barely exerted himself to raise infrastructure spending. Occasional rhetoric in favor of gun control has led to almost no action. Governing this way has enabled Trump to enjoy very high support from Republican voters. A large fraction of the people who voted for third-party candidates of the right in 2016 are likely to back him this November. But Trump’s repositioning to the right will probably cost him more votes than it gains him: There is substantial evidence that the perception of moderation is electorally beneficial.

He cannot undo the decisions that have modified his ideological image. But he also doesn’t seem to see a reason to try. He keeps catering to very conservative voters who are already with him rather than working on keeping wavering supporters or winning over nonsupporters. If you’re pleased by Trump’s retweeting of a video that complains that people are exaggerating George Floyd’s virtues, you’re already sure to vote for him. If you’re not sure to vote for him, it’s the kind of thing that explains why you’re not.

A third mistake is Trump’s insistence on portraying his opponent, “Sleepy Joe,” as a senile buffoon. Voters know that neither of these candidates is Cicero and don’t seem to hold it against either. But what’s especially self-defeating about this campaign tactic — which the entire Republican Party has followed — is that it rearranges public expectations to Biden’s benefit. Every time top Republicans mock Biden as a surefire disaster on the campaign trail, they are lowering the bar for how well he has to do in the fall and, especially, in the debates.

Biden is the front-runner in the presidential race. Trump is helping him to run, simultaneously, as the underdog. It is a promising strategy, but not for Trump.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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