Donald Trump was raised in the chapel of positive thoughts. While he was growing up, Trump’s family attended the Manhattan church of Norman Vincent Peale, the evangelist who preached self-realization and wrote the 1952 best-selling book The Power of Positive Thinking. Trump rarely talks about losing anything.
That’s why aides were puzzled late last week when the President, during a blitz of rallies in battleground states, repeatedly brought up the possibility of losing to former Vice President Joe Biden. Running against Biden “puts such pressure,” Trump said in Janesville, Wis. on Saturday, Oct. 17. “I’m running against the worst in the history of presidential — and now if I lose, can you imagine?”
The boss clearly needed to be bucked up a bit.
Over the weekend, campaign officials took Trump aside and briefed him on data that shows a narrow path to victory, anchored in an uptick in Republican voter registration since 2016 and doubling down on their strategy to super-charge Republican voter turnout on election day.
Since then, Trump’s stopped talking about losing. Instead, he’s been dancing. He shimmied to the Village People’s YMCA in Carson City, Nevada on Sunday. On Monday, he pumped his fists to the same song in Tucson, Arizona. Tuesday night in Erie, Pennsylvania, he moved his arms back and forth to the beat as the familiar lyrics played: “Young man. Get yourself off the ground. I said, young man, there’s no need to feel down.”
His advisors say it’s not just a show. Trump’s feeling it. “The dancing — it’s legit. He feels good,” says a White House official. “He physically feels good, and it’s the state of the race,” the official says.
Trump campaign officials and close aides are banking on the fact that public polling isn’t capturing all of the unusual factors this year that play into how people decide to vote, including the pandemic. “We’re flying blind more this year than ever before,” says the official. On top of that uncertainty, they see positive signs, such as recent Republican voter registration being higher than expected in swing states like Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. “We feel like we’re in a good spot,” the official says.
Aides around Trump believe there are very few undecided voters at this point in the race, and the final two weeks of the campaign is simply about convincing people who support Trump to cast a ballot. “Everybody’s made up their mind at this point…Everybody has an opinion of Trump,” the official says. With two weeks until Election Day, the campaign is working to motivate Trump voters to show up. “Are you going to give your people an excuse to turn out? Are you going to give them that one last little bit of juice that encourages them to show up? And that’s where the intensity of (Trump’s) support really matters,” the official says.
The campaign is betting that the vast network of on-the-ground campaign volunteers they’ve built over the past year, and the massive amount of data they’ve collected on individual voters, will lead to a surge in Republicans turning out on Nov. 3. They also think Trump’s fast-paced travel schedule and the media attention it drives in the next two weeks will motivate Trump supporters to go to their polling stations.
“He’s having fun on the campaign trail,” says a former White House aide in close touch with Trump campaign officials. “I feel good about the election suddenly. I was feeling all down in the dumps. Now I’m back in a positive mood,” the former official says, noting “the old adage that the guy who has the most fun wins.”
Campaign officials pushed that optimistic tone on a call with reporters Monday. “We feel better about our pathway to victory than we have at any point in the campaign this year,” said campaign manager Bill Stepien.
“I’ve never seen energy like this. I’ve never seen momentum like this,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said.
But even if he’s dancing, Trump acknowledges he’s facing an uphill climb. Trump is trailing Biden in national polls by a wide margin, and has had to campaign in states that his advisors forecast he would have sewn up by now. Trump believes his path to victory would have been a lot easier if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t tanked the economy, leaving him with a muddled economic message that voters should return to him to bring jobs and growth back.
During his Tuesday night rally speech in Erie, Trump blamed the pandemic for forcing him to campaign in more states. “Before the plague came in, I had it made. I wasn’t coming to Erie. I have to be honest. There was no way I was coming. I didn’t have to,” Trump said. ”We had this thing won.”
Many long-time Republican strategists believe that Trump’s instinct to attack perceived enemies and air grievances is also getting in the way of his campaign sending a clear message to voters in the final stretch. This week, he’s insulted Dr. Anthony Fauci, the popular head of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who gets higher marks in recent polling for his handling of the pandemic that the President. And he’s continued his war with the press by criticizing 60 Minutes anchor Lesley Stahl after taping an interview that is set to air Sunday.
As election day nears, Trump threatens to wear out the political playbook he’s been using all along. He’s not trying to reach more Americans. He wants to motivate those who already like him to get to the polls in key states and deliver an electoral college victory, even if he loses the popular vote like he did in 2016.
“From day one of his inauguration, Trump has never sought to expand his base,” says Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University. “He wants the system to deliver a victory even though most Americans will reject him. That’s what his campaign is about, to make sure he can exploit the existing system to deliver a minority victory.”
What nobody knows is how many voters will turn out on Nov. 3 in the middle of a pandemic, Naftali says. That will determine whether Trump is dancing on election night, or losing.