Trump Playing Defense in Rust Belt as He Opens Re-Election Bid

(Bloomberg) -- As his 2020 campaign gears up, President Donald Trump is putting an early focus on the three Rust Belt states that sent him to the White House after Republican losses in midterm elections showed his support in the region is fading.

Despite dominant fundraising, an established campaign organization and the power of incumbency, Trump risks losing all three states in 2020: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. On Saturday night, he held a campaign rally in Green Bay, an event timed to compete for cable-news eyeballs with the White House press corps’ annual charity dinner.

Trump Playing Defense in Rust Belt as He Opens Re-Election Bid

Trump’s interest in the region is already being matched by his top Democratic rivals -- former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- who are putting their own emphasis on voters in those areas.

The Trump campaign has been going out of its way to defend the territory. Senior campaign officials traveled to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, early in the week to assure state party officials the president has a strategy and the organization to again win. Trump chose Grand Rapids, Michigan, for his first rally after Attorney General William Barr announced that Special Counsel Robert Mueller hadn’t found evidence of a conspiracy between the president or his associates and Russians who interfered in the 2016 election, but referred instances of possible obstruction of justice to Congress.

Rust Belt Focus

The president and his allies talk optimistically about expanding the electoral map to states he lost in 2016, such as Minnesota and New Hampshire. But his Rust Belt focus is an acknowledgment that he may spend much of the 2020 campaign on defense, depending on the strength and appeal of his eventual Democratic challenger. In Wisconsin, for example, 46 percent of registered voters surveyed in a Marquette Law School poll released earlier this month said they would definitely vote for someone other than Trump in 2020.

Just 28 percent of voters said they would definitely vote for Trump.

Trump Playing Defense in Rust Belt as He Opens Re-Election Bid

At the rally in Green Bay, Trump touted data showing faster-than-expected growth in the U.S. economy. The Commerce Department reported Friday that gross domestic product rose at a 3.2 percent annual rate in the first quarter of 2019.

“We’re now the No. 1 economy anywhere in the world and it’s not even close,” Trump said at the rally.

Trump also highlighted jobs being created in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and elsewhere, crediting the trend with his moves to rescind regulations and counter tariffs on American exports.

Biden’s entry Thursday into the field of Democratic hopefuls highlighted the president’s vulnerabilities, even as Trump moved quickly to try to diminish him. On Twitter, he questioned Biden’s intelligence, dubbed him “Sleepy Joe” and said that if Biden could survive a primary against other Democrats’ “sick and demented ideas,” then “I will see you at the Starting Gate!”

Biden Response

Biden’s campaign responded to the tweet Friday in an email to supporters, calling it "beneath the office of the Presidency." The email said Democratic ideas aimed to get the country back on track, and said that Trump would be the only person "making this campaign ‘nasty.’" The email ended by asking for donations.

Biden’s campaign is built in part on the argument that the political veteran known for union ties and outreach across party lines is uniquely qualified to win back working-class white voters who went for Trump in 2016.

“He still has his Trump base in Wisconsin and all around the county, and these are the people who come for the rallies,” said David Canon, a professor of American politics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “But it’s a relatively small percentage of the overall electorate right now in Wisconsin.”

Biden, who often cites his roots in Pennsylvania, is making his first official campaign appearance in the state on Monday and making an appeal to the working-class white voters who went for Trump in 2016.

Sanders, Biden’s biggest rival, made a campaign swing through Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin earlier this month, despite the fact that the three states don’t hold their primaries until next March and April. Sanders’s campaign also took out a front page ad in the Green Bay newspaper on Friday.

Trump doesn’t need to win all three of the Rust Belt states to win a second term -- provided he holds all other states he won in 2016. But he needs at least one, and he won them by a scant combined 77,000 votes in 2016 out of nearly 14 million cast in the three states.

‘Best Thing Ever’

Rex Skupien, a realtor in White Cloud, Michigan, volunteered to staff Trump’s rally in Grand Rapids in March, manning one of four locations at the event where supporters could pick up “Make America Great Again” hats and other merchandise. While he was skeptical of the billionaire developer in 2016, Skupien said he’s become a huge fan, donating $305 to Trump’s 2020 campaign so far, mostly in increments of $50 or less.

“President Trump is the best thing that ever happened to this country,” Skupien said. “He’s not a politician. I’m so sick of career politicians.”

Trump Playing Defense in Rust Belt as He Opens Re-Election Bid

Trump won Brown County, Wisconsin, which includes Green Bay, by 13,828 votes over Hillary Clinton. Representative Mike Gallagher, a Republican first elected in 2016 whose district includes Green Bay, has steered an independent course since coming to Washington. He criticized Trump for firing James Comey from the top job at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and voted to overturn the national emergency Trump declared over border security.

Trump has raised a record amount for a president in his first two years and is picking up the pace. Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee jointly reported raising $71 million in the first quarter of the year and have $82 million in the bank. The 16 leading candidates in the Democratic field together reported raising about $77 million, before Biden’s entry.

Bottle the Magic

The re-election campaign’s strategy is to bottle the magic of Trump’s first win while making the most of the time, money and organization built since, including a campaign staff already of about 40, said Tim Murtaugh, its communications director. The campaign is housed in a skyscraper in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, where officials boast they scored a deal by taking over a lease vacated by a brokerage firm.

“We want to maintain the feeling that he is the leader of an insurgency, that people who still feel the federal government isn’t listening to them, they still view him as their champion,” Murtaugh said in an interview at the headquarters. “We have this advantage of time and we intend to use it.”

While the Democrats must spend their money battling one another, Trump so far is free to focus on the general election, building infrastructure and support in key states including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Trump aides say that for now, they regard the Democrats as one big field in which Sanders and liberal freshman members of Congress will tug all of the candidates to the left. That will mean embracing positions on the environment, health care and immigration that the president’s allies consider out of the mainstream in battleground states such as the Rust Belt.

Counting Strengths

The president counts his financial advantage, a devoted base and the strength of the national economy as major assets as he pursues re-election. But his divisive politics and rhetoric and the revelations of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report have dampened his hopes of significantly expanding his political base. Persistent economic challenges in Michigan and Pennsylvania may leave some voters feeling left out of the boom for which Trump claims credit.

Some of Trump’s aides still hope they can persuade him to adopt a more presidential demeanor ahead of his re-election, and discussed the idea again on Wednesday. Others doubt the 72-year-old president will change his style.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.