Donald Trump had reason to count on the loyalty of the large chunk of Americans who drove his improbable election victory in 2016. But in 2020, he needed a wider swath of voters to believe in his promise to “Make America Great Again.”
Faced with three crises - mounting coronavirus infections and deaths, the ensuing economic collapse and protests against police killings of Black Americans - Trump as U.S. president had an opportunity to unite people across political persuasions in the final year of his tumultuous first term.
Instead, at almost every pivotal moment, the brash businessman and former reality television star stayed true to his divisive brand. Spurning the advice of scientists and advisers, he stuck to a script embraced by his hard-core supporters and mocked those who dared to disagree.
His approach ultimately left a majority of American voters convinced he was not the right man to lead the country forward.
“If he had buckled down with a coherent and reassuring strategy dealing with the coronavirus, he absolutely could have made up the small margins that he lost several states by,” said Republican strategist Ryan Williams, who advised Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
“Instead of addressing the pandemic by listening to the advice of his best advisers, he doubled down on his instincts, which is what Donald Trump has done his entire life,” Williams said.
Even after major networks had declared Democrat Joe Biden the winner on Saturday, Trump refused to concede.
Among Republicans, there was a feeling Trump did better than expected. Pre-election opinion polls had signaled a Democratic tidal wave. But Trump kept it close, helped Republicans down the ballot and attracted more than 70 million votes, seven million more than he did in 2016.
“Trump delivered,” Republican strategist Scott Reed said. “And he’s still going to have a major impact on the party.”
Highs and Lows
Trump began the year riding high and looking poised to coast to re-election. The economy was booming. His impeachment trial was behind him after the Republican-led Senate cleared him on two charges brought by Democrats.
The Democratic Party, meanwhile, was fractured in its search for a presidential nominee. On Air Force One in February, Trump chuckled and critiqued the performances of each potential rival as he watched them debate on the TV in his front cabin.
But by April, COVID-19 had spread throughout the country. Seeing that daily news briefings by his coronavirus task force were getting good TV ratings, Trump stepped in and took them over, reluctant to cede the limelight. The briefings ended abruptly after an outcry over his suggestion that people inject themselves with disinfectant as a hedge against the virus, a comment he later said was a joke.
Worried a longterm virus lockdown would damage the U.S. economy and cost him re-election, Trump browbeat states into reopening. He refused health experts’ entreaties for a national testing program and mask mandate to ease the way to some semblance of normal life.
His dismissive rhetoric took a toll. Although voters viewed Trump as a strong steward of the economy, they became increasingly dismayed by his handling of the pandemic.
Then came the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police. In a massive outpouring of anger and despair, mostly peaceful protesters took to streets across the country demanding racial justice.
Opinion polls showed Americans largely supportive of the protesters, but Trump could not bring himself to express solidarity or interest in the cause. He used force to clear demonstrators from a park across from the White House, thinking a law-and-order message and images of him holding a Bible would resonate. Instead they fanned the flames for a summer of discontent.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said Trump missed an opportunity to reach beyond his base of support with a more empathetic handling of the protests.
“On the one hand, playing to your base will make sure you get to almost 50% in terms of overall support, but you need to attract more people in order to win,” Bonjean said. “Had he figured out ways to reach beyond his base, that could have been extremely useful to him and may have put him over the edge.”
Autumn Showdown and An October Surprise
By autumn, Trump was trailing Biden in national opinion polls. Increasingly the president raised doubts, without supportive evidence, about the integrity of the approaching November election.
Then in early October, Trump came down with the virus himself. He spent three nights in a military hospital under some of the best care the country could provide and was treated with medicines not immediately available to everyone else.
Rather than emerging with a more nuanced perspective of the virus that has killed more than 236,000 people in the United States to date, Trump returned to his large campaign rallies insisting that the media and Democrats were exaggerating its threat to undermine his re-election chances on Nov. 3.
“It’s COVID, COVID, COVID, you can’t watch anything else,” Trump said. “On November 4th, you won’t be hearing so much about it.”
Despite rising infections, Trump said that his administration was “doing a great job” against the pandemic and that the United States was “absolutely rounding the corner.”
Trump said the U.S. economy under his stewardship next year would “be the best year, economically, we’ve ever had” while Biden would usher in an era of depression and despair.
Republican strategist Charlie Black, who advised John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, said Trump let his concerns for the economy outweigh everything else and failed to meet the enormous challenges facing the country in 2020.