The Communications Clinic
The Communications Clinic
October 12, 2020

Originally published in The Sunday Independent

Donald Trump is losing this election. That doesn’t mean he will lose. But he is losing. Stating that isn’t a political argument, it’s a neutral assessment of a current reality.

Biden is leading in all major national polls by 7pc to 9pc, and has been throughout the entirety of 2020. Added to this, he’s leading in most battleground states including Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Analysis by the New York Times’s Nate Cohn shows that even if polls are underestimating Trump as much as they did in 2016, Biden would still be on course to win the electoral college with 300-plus votes.

Moving past the polls, the clearest evidence is provided by following the money trail.

Financial decisions tell you what a campaign is really thinking, not what narrative they publicly want to portray.

The cash-poor Republican campaign is pulling ads in the states that led to Trump’s current White House residency.

The campaign has cancelled $2m of ad spots in Michigan and Wisconsin. And has deserted plans for a $5m ad campaign in Minnesota – a state the Trump team has claimed it can flip. A sign that he’s abandoning once winnable opportunities.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden is actively contesting Texas.     

His campaign has committed $6m to advertisements throughout the state, while the anti-Trump Republican Lincoln Project has recently devoted millions to the Lone Star state.

Texas hasn’t voted Democrat since Carter in 1976. Clinton got only 43pc of the state’s 2016 vote. If Democratic strategists truly feel Texas is in play, then they think a landslide victory is a possibility.

Trump is behind largely because he doesn’t currently have any winning argument. And he doesn’t seem to have the capacity or competence to find one.

In many ways, this is unsurprising. Trump is not a political strategist. He’s an impulsive reality television star with a remarkable ability to manipulate, control and demand media attention. A skill that was an advantage in his unlikely ascension to the presidency. The former Apprentice boss got $4.96bn worth of free media coverage in the 12-month run-up to that election, according to tracking firm mediaQuant.

Attention and coverage, though, are only the first step. They merely open a window of opportunity to influence or motivate potential voters.

Dominating media coverage, free or otherwise, can be detrimental if the viewers don’t like what they’re seeing.

In 2016, Trump had a coherent and persuasive narrative to present to the viewers he attracted. A plan developed by now-absent strategists like Steve Bannon, who were able to use Trump as a conduit for their own objectives.

‘Build the wall’. ‘Drain the swamp’. Trump is a deal-maker who knows the art that can ‘Make America Great Again’. All ideas that were tangible, memorable and tapped into powerful emotions of fear, anger and nostalgia-tinged hope.

Trump’s current strategy is neither coherent nor persuasive. Indeed it’s difficult to comprehend exactly what he’s trying to communicate – bar seeding as many doubts as possible on the eventual result’s accuracy.

The wall has failed to materialise. The swamp was always going to be undrainable. And last Wednesday, the author of The Art Of The Deal publicly claimed credit for collapsing negotiations with Congress on a $2trillion stimulus package designed to restart the US economy. That stimulus package is supported by 72pc of voters and would have played to his one remaining strength – that voters still trust him more than Biden on the economy. The easiest of political wins abandoned due to a compulsion to criticise Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House leader.

As the election ticks nearer, it’s becoming increasingly evident that Trump is incapable of adapting, incapable of applying the nuance required to regain momentum. And that those around him either can’t or won’t control him.

Trump was desperate for last week to provide his Reagan Moment.

On March 30, 1981, Ronald Reagan was shot. After a labour event in the Washington Hilton, John Hinckley Jr’s bullet ricocheted off a parked limo and lodged itself in the president’s chest. Reagan initially didn’t realise he’d been shot – walking upright into George Washington Hospital before collapsing and being rushed to surgery.

The ‘great communicator’ responded to his crisis with calm humour – asking his surgeons: “I hope you’re all Republicans?” and joking with Nancy that he had forgotten to duck.

After life-saving surgery, the first-term president refused to leave the hospital in a wheelchair. “I walked in – I’m walking out.”

The Reagan administration’s approval ratings immediately soared into the high 70s. The public responded not to the incident itself but to the nature of their president’s response.

The spectacle of Trump arriving back to the White House from Walter Reed hospital via military helicopter before dramatically removing his mask was designed to portray Trump as a similarly happy warrior. The man bravely putting his body on the line to protect his people.

A plan that never had any real chance of success: for Ronald Reagan hadn’t spent the months before his hospitalisation downplaying the fatality rate of a bullet wound to the chest.

However, in the aftermath of his Covid hospitalisation, Trump did have another opportunity to regain momentum. To show an element of humility – and stress that Covid-19 was serious, so serious it could even infiltrate the White House. And reinforce the message that masks were an essential part of his plan to get the economy open again.

It would have wrong-footed Biden while undermining the argument that Trump is a reckless commander-in-chief who can’t be trusted to tackle the pandemic.

Trump desperately wants to be remembered as a great American leader, akin to a Ronald Reagan. But polls tell us that his impulsive instincts mean he’s more likely to be seen as a 21st century Herbert Hoover – a Republican incumbent who failed to be re-elected against the backdrop of economic turmoil.

All could still change utterly – but for that to happen, Donald Trump will have to prove himself capable of changing.

Lorcan Nyhan is director of training at the Communications Clinic