To focus on the sparse attendance at Trump’s Tulsa rally is to miss the insight gained from the event
This month 72 years ago, Lyndon B Johnson was in a fight for his political life.
After a previous failed attempt, he had resigned his seat in Congress to run in the 1948 Senate election. Coke Robert Stevenson was his opponent, a former governor who had never lost an election and was famous for his integrity.
Stevenson entered the race with a commanding lead, 64pc to Johnson’s 28pc. Johnson realised he needed to destroy his opponent’s reputation, so that’s what he set out to do. LBJ, an early adopter of private polling, always looked to see if his attacks on an opponent rang a bell with the public. If they didn’t, he dropped them, moved on and tried another.
Over a matter of months, he accused his opponent, ‘Calculating Coke’, of being soft on crime, of being a tool of the communists, of being an ‘old man’ and a ‘do-nothing, fence sitter’. The attacks didn’t land, so he simply moved on until he found one that did – that Stevenson made a secret deal with unions and would vote to repeal the popular anti-strike Taft-Hartley Act.
That hit a nerve with the anti-union Texan electorate so Johnson used his superior funds to cement the spurious claim into voters’ consciousness. Johnson went on to win – but by only 87 votes.
In 2016, Donald Trump followed the LBJ model. He was a test marketer not a strategist – consistently saying the wrong thing until he said the right thing for his base. And then repeating the winning line. It worked for him, just as it worked for Johnson.
The difference now is that Johnson responded to change. Tulsa suggests Trump hasn’t been in touch with his own base for several weeks.
So far, he has failed to bring down Joe Biden – or find something that will bring him down. He’s tried every accusation he levelled at Hillary Clinton last time, but has yet to draw any blood.
Trump dusting off the anti-Clinton playbook was predictable, but Biden’s Teflon-like resistance to its effects wasn’t. The question now is whether Trump adapts, abandons his 2016 slurs and road tests new methods.
Take his most recent rehash of old material that was unveiled amid the madness of his opening rally: “Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left. And he’s not radical left. I don’t think he knows what he is any more. But he’s controlled by the radical left.”
The intention here is clear: to repeatedly question Biden’s mental acuity and tie him to the liberal and left elements of the Democratic coalition. But it’s not working.
Clinton had been a constantly attacked public figure, an ever-present irritant to the voters who love Trump and saw her as an “uppity woman”. She was an itch ready to be scratched. Biden isn’t.
Of course, Trump can and does portray him as a tool of the left and as mentally not up to the presidency. Of course, he points to the verbal gaffes Biden scatters whenever he’s in public. Of course, he can draw attention to his life-long halting speech pattern, developed to deal with a childhood stutter, which leads him to skip over certain syllables.
But current polling shows the public aren’t buying any of it. Trump supporters find it more difficult to work up a good hate against Biden.
Plus, Trump hasn’t offered evidence. Attacks work if voters are provided with some ‘evidence’, however flawed, of their potential accuracy (think ‘crooked Hillary’ and 33,000 deleted emails).
It has greatly helped Biden’s campaign that their candidate hasn’t risen to Trump’s bait. And that he is the true template of a moderate Democrat – not even Trump can sell his base on the idea that he’s an undercover socialist.
Instead, he is attempting to paint him as a puppet and is hoping to force Biden to shore up support on his left by supporting platforms such as ‘Defund the Police’, thus alienating moderates, or distance himself from the left and risk losing their tepid support.
But Biden has boxed clever. He has distanced himself from the defund slogan, but not the movement. He is using his reputation for decency and empathy to keep the diverse coalition he needs – white moderates, suburban women, liberal Sanders’ devotees and black voters – on the same side.
The most recent New York Times poll shows Biden has support across his entire coalition. He is 14 points ahead of Trump nationally and significantly ahead in the six swing states which voted Republican last time.
Added to that, Trump has failed to divide the new Democrat coalition of ABTs – Anyone But Trump-ers. Biden is 34 points ahead with younger voters, 74 points ahead with black voters, 83 points ahead with those who describe themselves as very liberal and 33 points ahead with self-identified moderate voters.
None of Trump’s missiles have damaged Biden in the same way they damaged Clinton. And the former VP’s underlying message of a cultural and political reset presidency is bearing fruit.
The task for Biden during this long, hot summer is to continue to be both careful and clever. Confidence, paradoxically, is the enemy. Confidence leads candidates to be reactive, to go off message, and to make just the kind of mental lapse which could sink Biden. Misplaced confidence would see Biden yield to Trump’s goading and agree to more than the traditional three national debates. His campaign needs to continue to resist that pressure.
A key underestimated difference between the two men is their teams. Going into the last election, Trump had a team of propagandists who were terrifyingly energetic and new in their approach, encouraging him along lines that worked.
This time, he has no such asset. He has relentlessly and repeatedly pushed away those with ideas, those with a coherent (if lamentable) ideology, those who understand the changing mood of the electorate. He has pushed them away but is still using their ideas. But now they are four years old.
Trump would do well to consider one of Aesop’s lesser-known fables about a donkey. A merchant’s donkey, carrying a load of salt, slipped while crossing a river. To the donkey’s delight, his load dissolved and his pack was suddenly lighter. Thrilled with his success, the donkey thought he’d cracked the winning formula. On his next journey, he met another river and tried the same technique. Only this time his load was sponges. The sponges absorbed the water and with a pack now too heavy to carry – the donkey drowned. The donkey failed to realise his circumstances had changed. His previous trick no longer worked.
Trump is trying to replicate his 2016 success – running as an insurgent while being an incumbent. And it is weighing him down.
He might yet find something to latch on to or Biden might accidentally throw him a lifebuoy. But if the campaign continues on this trajectory and Biden continues to avoid calamity, then Joe is heading back to the White House.
By a heck of a lot more than 87 votes.
Lorcan Nyhan is head of training with the Communications Clinic