I Helped Obama Win in 2012. Now Trump Is Using the Same Playbook.

Democrats have ceded the field, allowing the president to define the terms of the general election.

Donald Trump
Carlos Barria / Reuters

About the author: Ben LaBolt served on three presidential campaigns, most recently as national press secretary for President Obama’s reelection campaign. He has served as the White House spokesman to confirm Justices Sotomayor and Kagan to the Supreme Court, a Capitol Hill aide in the House and Senate, and as a campaign adviser to Democrats such as Senator Sherrod Brown and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The general-election campaign is happening today. And Donald Trump is running unopposed.

Presidents who have recently won reelection seeded their victories not in the final sprint before Election Day, but by executing a two-year campaign to exploit a contentious primary on the other side, reconnect with their base of supporters, and define the election as a choice, not a referendum. I served as the national press secretary on President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, when we used that strategy to great effect. Now I’m watching President Trump executing the same strategy that powered Obama to reelection, while the Democratic organizations that could answer him have left an open playing field in the battleground states where the election will be decided.

The Trump campaign launched at the start of 2019 and hasn’t paused for a day. It is using the candidate’s schedule, a staffed-up campaign team, and a sophisticated digital-advertising effort to reach its target voters. The campaign has spent more than $5 million on Facebook ads, with a particular focus on older voters and women, firing up the base by attacking “fake news” and promoting its message on immigration. The advertising team has gone beyond social-media campaigns, sponsoring podcasts and creating a significant paid-media presence on YouTube. In fact, Trump is outspending Democrats six to one on video ads, the primary digital-engagement tool for voters today.

Simultaneously, Trump has begun to hold rallies in battleground states across the country, dipping into media markets where he can fire up his base, such as Panama City, Florida, and battleground markets, such as Green Bay, Wisconsin. Many of these visits lead to localized polling bumps that last for weeks.

Look no further than the Trump campaign’s press secretary’s Twitter feed to watch daily footage of the campaign reconnecting with supporters and asking them to engage its networks. Trump’s campaign manager is raising general-election funds and appearing before influential audiences.

Meanwhile, neither the Democratic National Committee nor any of the major Democratic super PACs are live with any notable broadcast or digital-advertising budget in battleground states targeted toward general-election swing voters. The 23 Democratic presidential campaigns are naturally focused on proximate targets, such as winning early states and meeting the DNC’s fundraising thresholds. As a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive, a communications and digital-marketing agency that has in the past served as an advertiser for Democratic presidential campaigns and super PACs, I follow this world closely. I’ve seen a number of campaigns begin to spend on digital advertising, but their ads are not focused on messages that will erode support for Trump. That’s not the role they are expected to play at this stage.

Democrats face the urgent necessity of countering the Trump campaign in the battleground states. The leading Democratic presidential candidates have raised less this year than they did in 2007. (In the first quarter, Senator Bernie Sanders topped out at $18.2 million, followed by Senator Kamala Harris at $12 million. In the first quarter of 2007, Hillary Clinton raised $26.1 million, and Barack Obama raised $25.7 million.) Democratic donors may be sitting on the sidelines because the field is wide and they are undecided. But if so, that also represents an opportunity. They could fund an effort that turns to the general election today even if they haven’t picked their primary horse.

There is no dearth of advertising material to air. The Chinese are importing soybeans from Russia and Brazil instead of Iowa and Ohio. Trump is steadily unwinding protections for LGBTQ Americans. Taxes have gone up on some voters who pay state income taxes after Republicans repealed the state and local tax exemption. And Democrats are again fighting to protect health-care benefits. The content writes itself.

What worries me is that I’ve implemented many aspects of the strategy that the Trump campaign has been executing. The groundwork for President Obama’s 2012 victory against Mitt Romney was laid in 2011. In November of that year, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story called “Is Obama Toast?” declaring that Obama had a 17 percent chance of winning reelection based on the economic indicators that had been historically predictive of whether the president wins reelection.

We on the Obama campaign didn’t let those early odds intimidate us. By the spring, we had launched a major effort to reinvigorate Obama’s activists, define Romney to swing voters by highlighting his every jolt to the right, and build a data-driven field and persuasion effort. Quietly, we fed research to media outlets that would highlight Romney’s hypocrisy, providing ammunition to his Republican-primary opponents, and draw attention to the deficiencies in his record in the private sector and as governor, which would concern general-election voters. And as we tested and finessed the most effective frame for the general election, we learned that we needed to do more education about Obama’s success in turning around the economy after the financial crisis.

We, too, had studied prior playbooks. President George W. Bush used the Democratic knife fight between Dick Gephardt, Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, and John Kerry to define the field as angry and unpatriotic and to begin to conduct a persuasion campaign to the segment of voters that would decide the election. In 1995, President Bill Clinton took swift action to recover from devastating losses in the midterm elections by linking Bob Dole with the more extreme and unpopular Newt Gingrich.

While Trump’s soft poll numbers may suggest otherwise, the general-election battle won’t be easy, in large part because he’s getting a head start. The Trump campaign entertained appeals from the Russians and WikiLeaks the last time around; it’s anyone’s guess what measures he and his staff will take to win reelection. The Democratic candidates should be careful not to get caught up in a primary debate that rewards purity (No fundraisers! Attend every forum regardless of audience!) over preparing a precise plan to win the broadest set of voters in order to halt President Trump’s historic assault on Democratic—and democratic—values.

It’s not time for Democrats to despair; it’s time for us to engage. Because primary campaigns have finite resources and shorter-term needs to address before they can get to the main battle, the DNC and allied super PACs need to begin advertising now in battleground states to provide air cover for the future nominee while he or she is tied up in what will likely be a highly competitive and lengthy primary race.

Donors, including those waiting to pick their favored candidate, should invest now in a serious, year-long fill-the-gap effort that ensures that the Trump campaign’s dominance is checked as quickly as possible. And activists, as they engage in primary organizing, should also consider what steps they can take today to win next year’s election, from registering voters to persuading swing voters in battleground states.

If Democrats don’t act now, the Trump campaign will define the general election on its own terms, before we can even choose our nominee.