By Konrad Foote
North America Analyst
Joe Biden is now the President-elect of the United States, winning a majority in the Electoral College, and in the process flipping those key states in the industrial mid-west Trump won against Clinton (e.g. Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania).
Although the election ended up much closer than the polls predicted, President Trump underperformed compared to his Congressional Republican colleagues (who’re on track to gain seats in the House of Representatives, and potentially retain their control of the Senate).
Compared to 2016, when Trump also outperformed his polling, why was Trump in 2020 unable to repeat his victory in 2020?
It is possible to point to a number of policy, and personality, reasons why Trump had high disapproval amongst the American public. However, when broken down, there are four key communication errors that cost Trump his re-election in 2020. Errors that meant he was unable to reignite the same political force that secured the White House four years ago.
1. Didn’t stick to the same 2016 economic populism message
A key campaign message from Trump’s 2016 campaign was economic populism, and it was something he did not put at the forefront of his 2020 campaign.
The 2016 Trump campaign took advantage of its outsider status, and rallied against special interest groups, and the political establishment (within both parties). His message of “Drain the Swamp” struck a cord, calling out a “broken system” of campaign financing that “buys and sells politicians of all stripes” (1). Dubbed the ‘Swamp’ as a play on how Washington D.C. was historically built upon the flood bank of the Potomac river, his campaign message tapped into bipartisan disapproval of the ‘Washington Elite’. The rhetoric that his candidacy would fight for the ‘average American’, remove corruption, and “Make America Great Again” found a home with those who agreed they lived in a political system that did not work for them. It was a similar anti-establishment message expressed by 2016 (and 2020) Democratic primary challenger Bernie Sanders. Repeatedly, the Trump campaign sought to contrast their message with the ‘out of touch’ establishment, when candidate Clinton, and President Obama, met those frustrations, and the ’MAGA’ tagline, with the claim that “America is already great” (2).
In rallies up-and-down the Rust Belt 2016 Trump called out the Trade Deals he argued were responsible for the decline of manufacturing, and the hardship of the American worker. The 2016 campaign contrasted their populist rhetoric, with the contemporary Democratic establishment, placing them responsible for “moving our jobs, our wealth, and our factories to Mexico and overseas”(3). Trump’s messaging painted a clear line from Bill Clinton’s signing of NAFTA in 1993 (which he called “the worst trade deal in history”) (4), to the Obama administration (and Secretary Clintons previous) support of the Trans Pacific Partnership, that he claimed would repeat and exacerbate the issues (5). His populist message articulated the anger of many voters in the industrial mid-west, sending them to the ballot box, and flipping those states from Obama Blue to Trump Red.
Running the same economic populist, outsider, ‘Make America Great’ again message would always have been hard as the incumbent, as Trump had to run on the reality of his record after four years in office. Although the President did action elements of his campaign rhetoric (e.g. repealing TPP, isolationism, and initiating a trade war with China (6)), in other areas he governed as the ‘typical Republican’ he previously rallied against, disillusioning elements of his base (e.g. he hit his lowest in-office approval rating after signing the corporate tax cut in mid-December 2017 (7)). The shifting policy was felt by those key mid-western voters as a move away from his 2016 working class message. In Wisconsin (a State that voted for Trump in 2016, and Biden in 2020), 60% of likely voters this election felt Trump was most concerned about the “wealthy and elite” rather the the working class (8).
Sticking to the 2016 rhetoric of economic populism would likely have secured Trump the re-election win, as it would have provided a similar foil to Clinton’s 2016 messaging, and contrast with the Biden campaign’s poor communication of their own policy agenda. Although there were times during the debates when Biden would discuss policy (e.g. use of renewable energy, 15 dollar minimum wage(9)), substance took a back seat in Democratic campaign messaging, with the cornerstone of his communications centred on two key principles; the desire for unity, and not being Donald Trump. Those points appealed to those already inclined not to vote for the incumbent President, however the final tally shows that the communication message wasn’t strong enough to provide Biden with the landslide win he hoped for, nor secure enough votes to gain a great majority in both houses of Congress.
Despite the legislative agenda Trump pursued, and the lost focus of his 2020 campaign messaging, there were elements of the 2016 populist rhetoric that remained. This was particularly the case in their minority outreach messaging, with Trump stating “[minorities are] embracing our pro-jobs, pro-worker, pro-police… and pro-American agenda.” (10). This specific use of populist rhetoric, is arguably the reason why, in 2020, despite Trumps previous comments and policies, he performed stronger than any Republican candidate in the last 60 years amongst American minority voters, increasing it’s share of the vote amongst Hispanic, Black, and non-white non college educated demographics (11)&(12). Had the Trump campaign made its economic populist message a larger part of the overall 2020 messaging, it is likely the Republican party would have retained the White House.
2. Wasn’t as successful attacking his opponent
In 2016, both in the Republican primary, and the General Election, Trump was successful in strategically finding a core fundamental critique of his opponent, and marrying that with unorthodox attack lines that highlighted the publics’ preconceived notions. In contrast, Trump’s 2020 campaign strategy never developed the same single, devastating, one-track attack on former Vice-President Biden that could serve as a hook to focus all other critique.
During the Republican Primary, Trump used used humour and juvenile nicknames to eviscerate the Republican establishment. From the duplicitous reputation of “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, the inexperience of “Lil’ Marco” Rubio, to the ridicule of “Low energy Jeb” Bush (best emphasised when he asked people to ‘please clap’ after he made a speech (13)).
This same energy was taken to the General Election, where one of Trump’s key critique’s of Secretary Clinton centred on her alleged impropriety (highlighted by news stories ranging from the Clinton Foundation (14), to the media around the FBI email investigation (15)). The nickname “Crooked Hilary” came to embody the preconceived impression members of the public had, and stuck to the Presidential hopeful. In the second 2016 presidential debate, Trump went viral with his “You’d be in jail” one liner, it further allowed him, through humour, push the viewpoint many had of Secretary Clinton, and ultimately dissuade enough voters to win in 2016 (16).
However, unlike in 2016, Trump’s 2020 attacks didn’t have a ‘hook’, a one singular all encompassing critique of his opponent. He instead used all possible arguments, even if they, at times, contradicted one another.
The topic of ‘Law and Order’ is one such example. Calls for criminal justice reform came in the aftermath of protests following the murder of George Floyd in May. Trump sought to make this a key feature of his campaign. However, critique of Biden was not focused from one angle. On the one hand, Trump claimed Joe Biden was too soft on crime, with a campaign ad claiming “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America”, as he “wants to defund the police” (17). However, simultaneously he claimed Biden was too tough on crime tweeting “Sleepy Joe Biden’s 1994 Crime Bill was a total disaster. It was mass incarceration for Black People, many of them innocent”(18).
Trumps intention was to draw support away from both sides of the political divide. However, to successfully do so, the attack needs to be coherent, and play the same line of argument. If it is contradictory, it risks falling on deaf ears. The 2016 critique, that Clinton embodied the very ‘Establishment’ that needs to be changed in order to ‘Make America Great Again’ was successful, as it could be articulated from both the right and the left. However, claiming Biden was too far to the left, whilst simultaneously not left enough, was a poor political ‘hook’ from which to hang repeat attacks for the duration of a Presidential campaign cycle.Trumps lack of consistency and focus was likely a key contributor to his inability to successfully critique Biden, and is a contributing factor to his loss in 2020.
Arguably Trump’s strongest line of attack against Joe Biden came from a moment in his Republican National Convention speech, where he stated Biden “took the donations of blue-collar workers, gave them hugs and even kisses, and told them he felt their pain — and then he flew back to Washington and voted to ship their jobs to China and many other distant lands” (19). Had this rhetoric played a larger part in his campaign, he may have been able to tap back into the populist rhetoric that won against Clinton, whilst finding an angle that worked against Biden.
3. Poor Coronavirus communications meant he couldn’t correct his perceived weakness
This point will not go into the specific policies of the Trump administration during the Coronavirus pandemic. The detail required is too vast. Instead, this identifies Trump’s missed opportunity to correct one of his biggest faults, lacking the appearance of being ‘presidential’.
Not appearing ‘presidential’ followed Trump’s campaign since he first announced he’d run for President. You may ask, if it didn’t matter in 2016, why would it matter in 2020? The previous two points outline how Trump didn’t deliver the same communication strategy to his base, and couldn’t attack his opponent successfully. In light of this, the need to appear in control, as the safe leader, as ‘presidential’ in this pandemic became even more important.
During an international crisis, this was a perfect opportunity for Trump to orchestrate a national movement to rally against a common enemy. In 2001, when the World Trade Centre was attacked, George W. Bush stood on the rubble, and sought to unite the country. It resulted in the highest registered approval rating of over 90% (highest ever recorded for a President by the polling agency Gallup) (20)&(21). Trump could have united the country without the need to embroil in foreign war. Although not directly comparable, many in the American public, within living memory, want a President who can unite the country behind a common goal. It’s essentially the entire cornerstone of Biden’s platform, where he repeatedly declares “while I’ll be a Democratic candidate, I’ll be an American president” (22).
On the state level, the Executive branch didn’t pass up this opportunity, and provides an interesting comparison. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, similar to Trump, mishandled elements of the Coronavirus response (e.g. ordering nursing homes in the state to accept coronavirus patients) (23). However, his strategic communications, attitude toward the task, and his daily conferences projected him as appearing in charge, in control, and a unifier. In October, 73% of likely voters approved of his handling of the virus along bipartisan lines (46% Republicans, 66% Independents). This contrasts squarely with the president, where the President received a 68% disapproval rating from likely voters (24).
The same is true for Governors from both sides of the political aisle. Looking at approval polls both before, and during the pandemic, both Democratic (e.g. California Governor Newsom increasing from 42% to 83% approval (+41%)), and Republican (e.g. Ohio Governor DeWine increasing from 49% to 80% (+31%)) Governors experienced a similar bounce through the appearance of control and management (25).
Rather than meeting the challenge, Trump privately called Covid-19 “a killer if it gets you”, “the plague” that “rips you apart”, whilst in public downplaying the virus (26). This is without even diving into the failed stimulus talks, where Trump’s poor communication strategy resulted in him taking the blame for the impasse (27).
As close to the election as October 26th, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said on CNN the US was “not going to control” the pandemic (28). The aftermath of Trump’s approach resulted in two in three Americans feeling as through the President didn’t take the pandemic seriously (29). As a result, many voters entered election day under the impression that if you deem Coronavirus an issue, you’ll need to vote for change.
4. Poorly managed campaign spending left them broke
Finally, in a presidential campaign controlling the media narrative is key. Candidates do all they can to promote their narrative, both through their owned media (e.g. rallies, tweets), and through earned media (e.g. announcing policies at key moments, commenting on the news cycle). No-one was stronger in that regard than Trump in 2016, with a study by The New York Times showing the campaign generated over $2 Billion in free media attention (30).
Whatever your view on the impact, and consequences, of campaign financing, it is undeniable that within the current political landscape, the ability for a campaign to put money behind paid media to persuade, incentivise voting, and support grassroots activism, is incredibly important.
Ensuring your candidates message is everywhere it needs to be, in a targeted and precise manner is expensive. That is why the poor handling of campaign funds in 2020 was a key reason for Trump’s inability to secure re-election in 2020. New York Times reporting by Shane Goldmacher and Maggie Haberman showed that although the Trump campaign overall had over 1 Billion dollars in funding, they entered the final stretch of the campaign strapped for cash (31). In October, the Trump campaign was left with $63 million cash on hand for the rest of the campaign (32). Although this may seem a lot, within the context of a presidential campaign, it’s pittance. The Trump campaign’s finances were dwarfed 180% by the Biden campaign’s comparative $177 Million dollars in the final stretch (33). As Grace Panetta reported, the Trump campaign was left with just $6 million more than the $57 million South Carolina Senate candidate Jamie Harrison was able to raise in Q3 alone (34).
It resulted in the Trump campaign cancelling media buys in key battle ground states, and, between August to September the Biden team was spending nearly five times as much as the Trump team on advertising (21.6 million vs 97.7 million) (35).
Had the campaign been using this money strategically, perhaps the early expenditure would have been deemed worth the investment. However, poor decision making by the campaign, from over $1 million in ads in heavily Democratic Washington D.C. market (which the New York Times stated was a “Trump-pleasing expense”), to $11 million dollars in Super Bowl ads (10 months before the election, with a message contradictory to the closing communications strategy by the campaign), meant this wasn’t the case (36).
The poor strategy stands in contrast to the 2016 campaign, where strategic use of Facebook advertising allowed the campaign to generate over £250 million in online fundraising (37). With former senior advisor to Secretary Clinton, and President of Bully Pulpit Interactive Andrew Bleeker stating “I think the Trump campaign did that extremely well… They spent a higher percentage of their spending on digital than we did”. It seems night and day when you compare that in Q3 of this year, the Trump campaign spent 77 cents to bring in one dollar of fundraising. (38). The poor strategic management of the campaign summed by prominent Republican pollster Frank Luntz who claimed “I’ve never seen a campaign more mis-calibrated than the Trump campaign. Frankly, his staff ought to be brought up on charges of political malpractice” (39).
It’s true, money isn’t everything in politics, the previously mentioned South Carolina Senate candidate Jamie Harrison lost his race against the incumbent Lindesy Graham despite outspending him 7-to-1 in the final month(40), and in 2016 Clinton spent more on her campaign than Trump did (41). However, Trump needed a strong, and well funded, paid media strategy to remind those 2016 voters why they voted for him, and to turn the political tide more in his favour. The requirement for a good paid media strategy is even more crucial when the President is receiving negative attention from both your opposition’s paid media, and from the earned news media cycle due to the perception of his handling of the pandemic. The cash shortfall meant the Trump campaign was unable to deliver their counter narrative through paid media, and the funding disparity compared to the Biden campaign meant they were constantly on the defensive in those media buys they could secure. All this may have cost them dearly in the key battle ground states in the mid-west, and the previously Republican states of Arizona and Georgia.
It would not be correct to say any one particular communication failure was solely responsible for Trump’s inability to secure re-election in 2020. Any one particular voter has a plethora of reasons to either vote (or decline to vote) for a particular candidate. Additionally, this article was not able to go fully in-depth into the potential reasons behind the relatively poor performance by the Biden campaign, and their own communication failings.
With that said, when you look at the campaign strategy, the communications presented by the Trump team in 2020, and compare it to the way in which it differs from the 2016 election, you do see why the President’s messaging didn’t rekindle the same spark.
Had any one of these campaign communication factors alone been the issue, then Trump may have been able to weather the storm, and secure re-election. He could have argued to those swing voters that another four years was necessary to fight the ‘Washington Swamp’. He could have made voters feel Biden was so bad they had ‘no other option’ but him. He could have shown that, despite his ‘off the cuff’ nature, he was a safe pair of hands to steady the ship. He could have used a strategic paid media campaign to deliver a strong, and convincing, counter narrative.
However, that didn’t happen. From not sticking to the same messaging; to the inability to attack his opponent successfully; to the bungled Covid communications; and to the lack of funds to deliver a strong paid media strategy. All this culminated in Trump relinquishing the presidency, and welcoming Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States.
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