President Trump’s State of the Union address last night was full of spectacle and short on new policy ideas. Recognizing veterans, reuniting families, and giving out presidential awards during the speech presented all the showmanship of a savvy reality TV star. But beyond just offering up an entertaining spectacle to the masses, this speech telegraphed the themes of President Trump's re-election campaign and indicated why it just might work.
To win re-election President Trump needs to win support from roughly half of the voters in the country, putting aside the complications of the electoral college. This speech was narrowly targeted towards building that block of support.
The first block, representing approximately 30% of the population, is President Trump's base. This group is motivated by the white identity politics President Trump champions and firmly exists in the alternate media system led by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, the latest Presidential Medal of Freedom award recipient as of last night. President Trump's sustained focus on illegal immigration and all the alleged ills it creates fuels this group.
If the end of the impeachment saga and President Trump’s acquittal has any actual impact, it will be that Trump can now return to emphasizing issues that fire up his base, like immigration. As the Reuters/Ipsos weekly tracker shows, while impeachment has dominated Trump's attention, concerns about immigration have fallen as the number one issue facing the country. Ipsos’ Cliff Young believes there is a direct connection between the President’s focus and concerns about immigration with the Republican base (Cliff’s Take). Now that the president is not preoccupied, will he and the conservative news system he dominates reprioritize this issue as a way to mobilize his base?
The second block, representing about 15% of the country, are the people who find the president’s actions distasteful, but appreciate the results he has produced, particularly as they relate to the economy. This group is not motivated by racial politics and are not excited about the president's dog-whistle rhetoric, but they are also not so put off by his alliance with white nationalists to abandon him. Instead, they tend to be much more focused on economic issues and reinforcing the existing structures of society.
So long as the economy continues to perform well, this block of voters appears to be content with President Trump's administration. They likely are not feeling moved to vote him out of office. Reminding them of the strength of the economy is valuable in calling on them to stay engaged and turn out to vote.
Taken together, this gets President Trump to approximately 45% of the public, near to where his job approval ratings have remained for the last two years. Given that over 50% of the public strongly disapproves of the President's job performance, garnering that last 5% of support he will need to win the popular vote and electoral college may be more difficult.
Last night’s speech seems to indicate that the president and his campaign have decided if he can't get over half, he is going to try to make sure that the Democrats can’t either.
African Americans make up about 12% of the electorate and overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Through his focus on the economy’s impact on African American communities, funding for historically Black colleges and universities, and the steps he has made towards criminal justice reform, President Trump is signaling to the black community that his presidency has something of value to offer them. If the Trump campaign can convince Black voters that his administration is not as awful or threatening as some may describe it, and perhaps go as far as to say that the president has been good for the African American community, he may effectively depress the African American turnout Democrats need to win.
Taken together these themes forecast President Trump's what election campaign strategy will look like: Whip up the base with anti-immigrant rhetoric; claim credit for the economy while doing everything possible to ensure its continued boom; and convince specific portions of the Democratic coalition that Trump is not all that bad so they do not feel inspired to turn out on Election Day 2020.