President Trump’s victory in 2016 is remembered for defying polls and stunning Democrats. But in many ways, it was not a surprise.
He prevailed with a piercing outsider message on jobs, immigration, China and trade. He restrained himself on Twitter in the final weeks while portraying his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as hostile to the economically disenfranchised blue-collar voters flocking to his rallies. His campaign worked systematically to drive up margins of white voters in battleground states that Democrats had largely taken for granted.
Mr. Trump’s obstacles are considerably higher this time. He is an unpopular incumbent in the midst of a pandemic and an economic decline. He is facing a much different opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has carefully studied mistakes Mrs. Clinton made in 2016.
Yet with two weeks until Election Day, Mr. Trump retains a narrow path to victory, in the view of many analysts, one that would require him to draw on his most effective tactics from 2016 and make fundamental changes in his campaign style to expand his appeal beyond his political base. He also needs Mr. Biden to make a mistake.
The clearest road for Mr. Trump is to hold one of the three states he snatched from Democrats in 2016 — Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin — as well as the rest of his winning electoral map, including Arizona and Florida, where Mr. Biden is now competitive. Polls indicate that is a daunting task, but not an impossible one, particularly if he succeeds again in driving up support among working-class voters, including in more rural areas he dominated in 2016, while holding down Mr. Biden’s support among nonwhite voters.
Still, interviews with 21 Republican and Democratic strategists, many of whom have worked for other presidential campaigns over the past 30 years, suggest that Mr. Trump will need some 11th-hour disruptions in the race. That might include a bad stumble by Mr. Biden in the debate on Thursday or on the trail; court rulings or Republican tactics that suppress the Democratic vote; and a G.O.P. ground game that turns out voters who may not have been counted by pollsters.
And Mr. Trump will need to bring discipline to the campaign trail that has so far eluded him, the strategists say. That will mean presenting a forceful and uncluttered appeal that he is better able than Mr. Biden to rebuild the economy, while trying yet again to draw a contrast between himself and an opponent he has sought to portray as ideologically too far to the left to run the nation.
In the end, most strategists said the single best hope for Mr. Trump was for Mr. Biden to do something to worry or alienate swing voters who Mr. Trump has already driven into the Democratic camp. And counting on your opponent to make a fatal mistake in the final days is rarely a good strategy.
Expand the electorate
Republicans have shown success in registering new voters in states like Florida and Pennsylvania. That could be important in building on a key part of the president’s 2016 strategy: turning out working-class white Americans who have not voted before.
“There are few days left to change the trajectory of the race,” said Sara Fagen, who was the White House political director for President George W. Bush. “Trump’s best chance at this point would be to dramatically boost turnout among non-college-educated white voters in the industrial Midwest.”
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Even optimistic Democrats (and most Democrats are optimistic) say this is a cause for concern.
“The Republicans have been laser-focused on growing the electorate this time,” said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 campaign for president. “The Republicans have a better operation on the ground than anything we’ve seen since 2004.’’
And it isn’t only white working-class voters. Polling suggests that Mr. Trump is doing as well or slightly better with Black and Latino voters in some states than he was in 2016 against Mrs. Clinton.
The electoral map
Mr. Biden is competitive in several states that Mr. Trump won in 2016: Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Some polls also show Mr. Biden with a significant lead in Florida, which has long been the Lucy-and-the-football state for Democratic presidential candidates.
But any road to re-election for Mr. Trump leads through Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. He is unlikely to win without holding on to at least one of those three 2016 upset states (and ideally two), though which ones offer him the best opportunity changes by the day.
Some analysts have suggested he pour resources into Wisconsin, which began in-person early voting on Tuesday. “It’s quite a challenge for him,” said Katherine J. Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It seems like Biden is really holding his own here.”
From there, he can turn to cobbling together the electoral votes he needs to reach 270 — by holding on to Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia and potentially grabbing Nevada, Minnesota or New Hampshire from the Democrats. More than anything, Mr. Trump cannot lose Florida.
Mr. Biden enjoys big leads in many national polls, but the race is tighter in many of these states. That may prove significant if some state polls are off, as they were in 2016, though pollsters say that is not likely. “Go back and look at October 2016,” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House. “This was the time of the panic over the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, when everyone knew that Trump was dead. I always said he was going to win.”
Mr. Trump could limit the continuing political damage from his management of the pandemic, analysts said, if he stopped offering chipper assessments of the coronavirus and ceased presenting himself as evidence that a disease that has killed over 220,000 people is not a big threat. Then he could turn to issues that would expand his appeal, particularly to women and older voters.
“He should take coronavirus seriously,” said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic consultant and veteran of presidential campaigns. “He should start chairing Covid meetings. Do some joint appearances with Anthony Fauci. Show some empathy for people whose lives have been lost. Stop talking about himself.”
Karl Rove, the senior strategist for Mr. Bush, said that Mr. Trump could seek to blunt Mr. Biden’s attacks on the White House’s management of the pandemic by pointing to Mr. Biden’s own response during the winter.
“There’s a lot of information out there that a disciplined campaign could use to say to Biden, ‘What you and your advisers were saying and doing then shows you didn’t have it right and all this criticism is Monday morning quarterbacking,’” Mr. Rove said.
Showing more discipline
One of the reasons Mr. Trump won in 2016 was that he began exhibiting more discipline in the final weeks of his campaign: less tweeting and trolling.
If he were to reprise that, perhaps he could get weary Americans to give him one last look.
“Trump must turn to the disciplined teleprompter demeanor he used during the last two weeks of 2016,” said Charlie Black, a veteran of many Republican presidential contests. “He must talk about two issues only: the economy and the Democrats’ plan to pack the Supreme Court.”
But in 2016, Mr. Trump was not dealing with a pandemic. He was out-hustling Mrs. Clinton on the campaign trail every day, and she was dealing with a daily influx of bad news.
And if there is anything the political world has learned over these past four years, it is that Mr. Trump does not pivot. If he is getting take-the-high-road advice from his strategists, there is no sign that he is following it, as despondent Republicans were reminded this week when Mr. Trump started attacking Dr. Fauci.
A Biden stumble
Mr. Trump has always counted on Mr. Biden’s having a mental lapse that would underscore the president’s contention that the former vice president has lost something on his fastball. Mr. Biden has provided plenty of missteps over the years to encourage that kind of hope. But that did not happen at the first debate, and Mr. Trump has been frustrated in his attempts to exploit Mr. Biden’s stumbles on the campaign trail.
There is one more debate and two more weeks of campaigning that will give Mr. Trump an opportunity to maintain pressure on his opponent — with attacks on the business dealings of his son Hunter Biden, for instance — in hopes of forcing a mistake that could bring back some swing voters whom Mr. Trump has lost.
Voter suppression and court challenges
Republicans have been trying, with legislation and court battles, to restrict absentee balloting, which could make the difference in a close election.
“Surround the counters, find friendly governors and commissioners who won’t certify the vote,” said Susan Estrich, who managed the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael S. Dukakis. Stuart Stevens, a Republican consultant who is now a critic of the president, said that Mr. Trump’s “only realistic hope is voter suppression through every means possible.”
Mr. Trump has surprised the world before. But even accounting for his loyal base, and his tenacity as a campaigner, Republicans and Democrats say Mr. Trump’s political future may now be out of his hands.
“It’s been locked in for months, and is now moving away from him even further post-debate,” said Mark Salter, a senior adviser to Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. “I suppose some unforeseen catastrophe or huge Biden mistake might reverse the trend, but it seems pretty clear that a majority of voters want to get Trump the hell out of there before he screws up even more.”