WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump will visit the battleground states of Arizona and Wisconsin this week as his campaign tries to regain its footing after a tough week that culminated with a smaller-than-expected rally Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Trump heads Tuesday to Yuma, Arizona, where he’ll hold a roundtable discussion on border security and commemorate the construction of the 200th mile of new border wall before addressing a group of young people in Phoenix. On Thursday, he’ll travel to Marinette, Wisconsin, where he’s scheduled to tour a shipyard that was recently awarded a $5.5 billion contract to build guided missile frigates for the Navy.
Neither trip is an official campaign event, but both states are expected to be pivotal in this fall’s election. The events also give Trump an opportunity to try to erase the images of Saturday’s rally in Tulsa, where he addressed a crowd that filled roughly half of the arena and scrapped plans to address an overflow crowd after it didn’t materialize.
The rally came at the end of an exhaustive week for the president, which included two Supreme Court rulings against the Trump administration on LGBT workplace discrimination, as well as the administration’s effort to end the DACA program that offers legal protection for young migrants at risk of deportation.
The administration was also forced to mount a defense after copies of former White House national security adviser John Bolton’s book circulated in Washington. The White House tried to block the book’s release but a judge cleared the way for its publication. On top of that, several polls released last week showed Trump trailing his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The fallout from the Tulsa rally raises the stakes even higher for the events in Arizona and Wisconsin, said Kevin Madden, a political consultant who has advised several Republican presidential candidates.
“He’s an incumbent president who is in the unfortunate position of being an underdog at the moment so, yes, the stakes are high,” Madden said. “Arizona and Wisconsin are battlegrounds that he can’t afford to lose, and his Republican allies are anxious to see the campaign turn things around because their political fortunes are at stake as well.”
What happened in Tulsa
With less than five months until Election Day, and political events largely on hiatus for several months due to coronavirus, Trump on Saturday aimed to restart his campaign before an arena packed with 19,000 supporters in Tulsa.
Instead he was greeted with a crowd of about 6,200, according to an estimate by the Tulsa Fire Department, and a sea of empty blue seats in the upper sections of the arena. Plans for for the president and vice president to speak to an overflow crowd outside the arena were canceled after the dwindling crowd moved inside.
Alex Conant, a GOP consultant who served as communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential effort in 2016, said the campaign will likely need another form of relaunch after Tulsa’s less-than-expected attendance.
“Trump needs to reframe this election as a choice between himself and Biden. The last couple of weeks were among the worst stretches for any president ever,” Conant said. “He needs to turn the page, reframe the race and not have any more missteps like Tulsa.”
The campaign blamed low turnout Saturday on media coverage of nationwide unrest following the death of George Floyd last month and a surge in coronavirus cases in Oklahoma in the days leading up to the rally.
The president has dismissed concerns from health experts about the spread of COVID-19 at large-scale events such as his rallies and protests. But before Saturday’s rally, the campaign announced six members of its advance team, including two Secret Service members, had tested positive. On Monday, two more staffers joined their ranks.
Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican political strategist, said the events in Arizona and Wisconsin give Trump an opportunity “to drive a message and motivate his base after three months where we seen some slippage in the polling.”
“He can call attention to promises kept on his key issues, which will remind voters of the stakes in the election and the choice they have” in November, Mackowiak said.
Most polls show Trump trailing Biden. Biden leads Trump by 9.5 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics most recent average of polls. Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in Arizona by 3.5 percentage points in 2016 and pulled off a surprise victory in Wisconsin by edging Clinton by less than 1 point. Democrats and Republicans are both eyeing the states in their path to victory in November.
Before Tuesday’s trip highlighting border security, the administration announced Trump would sign an executive order suspending temporary visas for foreign workers until the end of 2020.
Trump’s strategy appears to be taking a page from his 2016 playbook, Conant said, which is to ensure his base is more energized than the Democratic base by focusing on the revival of his raucous rallies and issues that propelled him to the presidency like immigration.
But some of those issues that dominated in 2016 may feel a little out of place as the country wrestles with the twin crises of economic fallout over the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests over police brutality and racial inequity, according to Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“Immigration may have felt more important in 2016 when there was less going on, but with the public health crisis, economic troubles, real concern about inequities in policing – does the president’s focus on the same issues he focused on in 2016 have as much relevance in a different time?” Kondik said.
More than 120,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus with more than two million cases reported, according to Johns Hopkins University. The death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, sparked nationwide protests and has exposed the country’s deep racial wounds.
While Trump’s 2016 issues may still seem important to his hardcore supporters, Kondik said the president could benefit from reaching out to independent voters and those who were lukewarm on Trump in 2016 but voted for him anyway.
Instead, Trump has doubled down on divisive rhetoric that defined much of his first campaign. During his remarks in Tulsa, Trump used the term “kung flu” to describe the coronavirus and he denounced the removal of Confederate statues amid ongoing protests, arguing that a “left-wing mob” wanted to “vandalize our history.”
“It’s more serious in 2020, and I don’t think the president has really adjusted to the state of the country,” Kondik said. “I think that’s dangerous for an incumbent because fairly or unfairly, if things are going poorly that could reflect back on the incumbent.”
But as the last few months have shown, a lot can change between now and Election Day and the widening polling gap between Trump and Biden will likely narrow once the former vice president becomes the focus of the campaign.
“Biden’s going to have his moment in the spotlight, too,” Kondik said.