Slowly, quietly, but deliberately, Donald Trump’s strategy for winning a second term is coming into focus.
The elements of Team Trump’s plan are simple, although riddled with irony and contradictions: A disciplined focus for a candidate who refuses to be bridled; a limited palette of issues for a president lacking deep political mastery but whose inclination to stray from the topic has never been constrained; and a narrow geographical path for an incumbent president of a continent-wide country.
That means Mr. Trump and his Republican allies are planning to continue to emphasize his tax cuts and his conservative Supreme Court appointments to conservatives; to stress his elimination of environmental, health, safety and commercial regulations to business interests; and to continue his pressure on major American trading partners.
And to hope that the financial markets don’t have another week as the past one.
Then the candidate – still an electoral novice but nonetheless a formidable instinctive political operator – will attempt to wrap that in a bundle of populist language to appeal to workers who once felt a strong Democratic pull; to rural voters who must measure the implications of his trade policies against the lure of his anti-elitist rhetoric; and to an assortment of others who are angry, dispossessed or disillusioned.
All that is occurring as shifts in American political dynamics come into sharp relief here in the Upper Midwest – an important political battleground where demographic changes and Mr. Trump’s disruptions of U.S. political culture are making for a combustible political season.
The weapons that the President will deploy are familiar and especially potent here, with equal ability to attract and repel voters: blustery language, the vilification of opponents and a sharp focus on white male voters without college educations, who flocked to Mr. Trump’s banner in 2016.
Two vital unknown factors: Will Republican legal efforts such as voter I.D. procedures suppress turnout in competitive states, especially among black voters who tend to vote for a Democratic candidate? And, will Russian election-disruption techniques contribute to the subtle, or perhaps even substantial, advantage of the President?
Like many American elections, the number of persuadables in the 2020 election – those whose ballot preferences are not already fixed – is small. Like many American elections, triumph or defeat will depend in large measure on persuading the persuadables.
Close American elections – and there are indications next year’s contest will be bitter, hard-fought and offer the winner a narrow path to victory, much the way Mr. Trump’s 2016 election did – often come down to a handful of battleground states. In 2020, these will be the very states that swung to Mr. Trump in the closing days and offered him a victory in the electoral college but not in the popular tally, which former secretary of state Hillary Clinton won by close to three million votes.
Thus Mr. Trump and his campaign aides are already focusing on the swing states of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which he visited last Wednesday and claimed credit for a new Pittsburgh-area ethane-cracking facility that was in the works for more than four years before he became President. In recent months, a new entry has been established as a prime Trump target – Minnesota, which Mr. Trump lost three years ago by only 44,765 votes, or about 1.5 per cent.
This state is critical not only because one of its House members, Representative Ilan Omar, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Somalia, was the focus of Mr. Trump’s angry tweets this summer and, later, of a “send her back” chant at a Trump rally. Last month, Mr. Trump tweeted: "In 2016 I almost won Minnesota. In 2020, because of America hating anti-Semite Rep. Omar, & the fact that Minnesota is having its best economic year ever, I will win the State!’’
Minnesota is also significant as a vital test case of the Trump appeal – and as a window into the changing political profile of the United States.
Ordinarily, American suburbs give Republicans strong support, while industrial and mining areas side with Democrats. That is why Democrats have consistently won Minnesota’s Iron Range, with a century-old history of labour strikes, while the Republicans have built up majorities in the suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Now, in one of the most fundamental disruptions of the Trump era, the Democrats are counting on making inroads in the Minnesota suburbs while Mr. Trump is hoping to repeat his strong performance in the Iron Range, where his seven-vote margin over Ms. Clinton was astonishing, not because of Mr. Trump’s slender margin of victory but because the region for generations has been a stronghold of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
“The Iron Range was central to my life and to a lot of old liberals, and we counted on winning by 10-to-1 margins up there," former vice-president Walter Mondale, the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee and for a dozen years a senator from Minnesota, said in an interview. ‘’But in the last 10 years there’s been a big change, and we’re getting killed there. The life up there depends on mining, and while Democrats are their old friends, they don’t think we understand mining."
A parallel movement is occurring in Wisconsin, where Mr. Trump scored an important victory in 2016 after Ms. Clinton declined to campaign in the state.
There, across the St. Croix River from Minnesota, Democrats are gaining support in the once-Republican suburbs of Milwaukee and Green Bay. At the same time, GOP loyalty seems stronger than ever.
“In some ways, Trump is in better shape here than he was in before,” said Charles Franklin, director of Milwaukee’s Marquette University Law School Poll. “The Republicans are more united than they were in 2016. Then again, the Democrats are more motivated than they were in 2016.”
The forecast for Wisconsin, as for Minnesota and the other swing states: Cloudy with a chance of bombast.