How Trump Could Shock the World Again

The president’s campaign is behind in polls and fundraising, but could still pull out a victory.

Donald Trump speaks to a crowd of supporters.
Anna Moneymaker / The New York Times / Redux

It was late in the evening at Hillary Clinton’s victory party in 2016, and by that point, the guests understood there would be neither a victory nor a party. As Donald Trump’s upset sank in among the hordes at the Javits Center in Manhattan, I asked one Clinton supporter how he was feeling. “Like I want to kill myself,” he said.

Later, at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen, I stumbled upon a group of Clinton-campaign aides sitting together in tears. A tray of shots sat on the table before them. They shared a look of shock: How could this possibly have happened?

Trump trails Joe Biden by an average of eight points nationally, and is behind in every important battleground state. But his reelection still seems plausible, if only because 2016 seemed so implausible. “If I take my PTSD hat off, I can feel semi-comfortable about where things are,” Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist in Florida, told me. “But it’s impossible to take my PTSD hat off.”

Better to leave it on. Surrounding Trump is an apparatus that is still trying to flip states and woo evangelical, Latino, and Black voters, who could all make a difference in a tight race. “There are some people on the Trump campaign who understand political strategy,” Ryan Williams, a spokesperson for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, told me. “They’re just overridden on a daily basis by whatever the president says or does.”

Certainly, the chaos candidate isn’t making the job any easier. At a rally last week, Trump told the people of Erie, Pennsylvania, that he’d rather be somewhere other than the city they call home. Still, the president’s reelection campaign is doing a few things that might work. Here are four.

Trying to expand the map

The president will be better positioned for another Electoral College victory if he can pry loose a state or two that Democrats won last time. His campaign has been eyeing New Hampshire and Nevada, but another target, Minnesota, has as many Electoral College votes as the other two combined. Clinton carried Minnesota by only 45,000 votes in 2016. Although Republicans haven’t won it since 1972, a play for Minnesota is not a bad gamble: At minimum, competing in the state forces Democrats to divert resources from other battlegrounds.

Minnesota Democrats estimate that as many as 250,000 white residents who didn’t go to college—the heart of Trump’s base—weren’t registered to vote in 2016. Republicans are taking pains to find them. While Democrats in the state have largely suspended door-to-door campaigning because of the pandemic, Republicans have kept at it. Last week, volunteers knocked on more than 130,000 doors in the state, a campaign official told me. “This is the largest organization that we’ve seen a Republican put into this state, in terms of advertising dollars, principal visits, and staff on the ground,” Ken Martin, the chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, told me. “There’s no doubt that they have a significant operation here.”

Trump’s campaign has booked more than $1.2 million in TV advertising in Minnesota in the final week of the campaign—more than it spent there in the preceding three weeks combined, according to Advertising Analytics, which tracks campaigns’ ad spending. Vice President Mike Pence held a rally in northern Minnesota on Monday, the latest in a series of visits to the state by Trump and top surrogates. Overall, the Trump campaign has deployed 60 staffers in Minnesota, a level of Republican intensity surpassing that of any race in memory, both parties say. (Democrats say they have many more staffers on the ground in the state.)

Biden’s lead in Minnesota stands at 5 percentage points, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls. That number could be inflated. State-level polling proved flawed in 2016: Clinton won Minnesota by 1.5 percentage points even though some of the final polls showed her up by double digits. “Knowing what we do about 2016, we would all be foolish to imbue the polls with undue certainty,” Charles Franklin, a pollster, told me. Both Biden and Trump are scheduled to make dueling appearances in Minnesota today.

Winning Minnesota would give Trump “some leeway to lose another state that he won last time,” Williams said. “It’s an insurance policy,” even if it isn’t “a game changer.” Minnesota has the same number of electoral votes as Wisconsin, for example—a battleground that Trump narrowly won four years ago. Should he lose Wisconsin this time, he’d be no worse off in the Electoral College tally if he manages to wrest Minnesota from the Democrats.

Microtargeting Latino voters

Trump’s campaign is sending customized messages to voters of Cuban, Colombian, Venezuelan, and Nicaraguan heritage who may be receptive to the president’s anti-socialist rhetoric.

“It’s classic microtargeting,” José Parra, a Democratic consultant and former aide to ex–Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, told me. Trump is “going after the main groups in South Florida that could help him out in blunting Democratic turnout.”

A theme of Trump’s messaging is that he’s a bulwark against leftist ideology espoused by specific political figures in Latin America. “These are folks who are generally religious and culturally conservative,” Nick Trainer, the campaign’s director of battleground strategy, told me of the voters being targeted. “Especially in Florida, the Cuban and Venezuelan voters often have left countries that have communist histories. The advantage of incumbency is we get to spend time homing in on each and every piece of the electorate.”

One ad juxtaposes images of Biden and the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, a reviled figure in much of Florida’s Cuban American voting bloc, which numbers about 900,000, according to Eduardo Gamarra, a political-science professor at Florida International University specializing in Latin American politics. The same ad also includes footage of Gustavo Petro, a former Colombian guerrilla and an ex-mayor of Bogotá, saying he supports Biden. About 200,000 Colombians living in Florida are registered to vote, Gamarra said. Asked about the ad, a Biden-campaign official told me, “No, he [Biden] doesn’t want the support of Petro. Of course we don’t. Just—no.”

Meanwhile, Trump used his Twitter feed earlier this month to congratulate Colombia’s ex-president Álvaro Uribe after he was ordered released from house arrest amid an investigation into alleged witness tampering. Uribe’s tenure was also linked to human-rights abuses. Trump called him a “hero” and an opponent of socialism.

“It’s smart politics,” Gamarra said. Trump is “playing to the right wing here in Miami. Most Colombians are Democrats. But all he needs—and this is key—is to move these communities by 5 or 10 percent and that’s enough to change the equation in Florida.”

Shoring up evangelical voters

White evangelical Christians accounted for 20 percent of people who voted in 2016. Today, they constitute only 18 percent of registered voters, according to the Pew Research Center. Some are tiring of Trump’s act. He received 80 percent of the evangelical vote in 2016; a Pew poll earlier this month showed that his support had slipped to 78 percent. “He needs maximal white-evangelical turnout. That’s his only path to winning,” Michael Wear, who handled religious outreach for former President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, told me.

“All the evangelicals I know have expressed chagrin, or concern, or heartburn, or some combination of the three about some of the president’s vocabulary and some of the president’s posturing toward those with whom he disagrees,” Richard Land, the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and a member of a group called Evangelicals for Trump, told me.

There isn’t much Trump can do about the larger demographic trends that have trimmed his base, but he can give evangelical voters reason to show up at the polls. In the final sprint to Election Day, Evangelicals for Trump is holding several “Praise, Prayer, and Patriotism,” events in battleground states. Past meetings featured the Florida televangelist Paula White and Alveda King, a niece of Martin Luther King Jr. A meeting at a Las Vegas hotel this summer drew hundreds of people—along with condemnation from the state’s Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, for violating COVID-19 restrictions limiting gatherings to 50 people.

For the faithful, Trump isn’t an obvious choice. As my colleague McKay Coppins wrote, Trump has privately mocked Christian leaders and derided certain religious rites and doctrines. But he’s also taken action that matters to evangelicals, capped by the hasty nomination of the newest conservative Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett, whom he swore in Monday night. She is the third justice he’s installed on the high court, cementing a conservative majority that will decide cases on abortion rights, religious freedom, and other cultural issues long after Trump is gone. Trump is deploying “a very clever, cynical, and mostly successful strategy,” Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who supports Biden, told me. “He made a deal with American evangelicals. He said, ‘You tell me what you want and I will deliver it, and you will give me back what I want—and that’s your vote.’”

Holding rallies to recruit new voters

Democrats went through rounds of finger-pointing after Clinton’s defeat. Should Biden lose, a similar reckoning will begin anew. Already, some analysts point to inroads Republicans have made in voter registration as a potential problem.

At Trump rallies, campaign aides have been checking to make sure supporters are registered to vote. (Biden largely chose to forgo big rallies because of the pandemic). In Florida, the Democratic registration advantage is down to about 134,000 voters, out of a total of more than 14 million. By contrast, in the 2000 election, Democrats’ registration lead in Florida was 379,000. In Pennsylvania, Republicans have cut the Democrats’ registration lead since 2016 from 916,000 to 687,000, out of 9 million registered voters. That’s not a trivial difference. Four years ago, Trump won Pennsylvania by just 44,000 votes.

Sean Trende, a senior elections analyst at Real Clear Politics, cites the registration numbers along with Trump’s relatively high approval ratings on the economy as evidence that he could prevail. “If Trump does pull out the win or overperforms expectations significantly, we would look back at these types of things and say, ‘Yeah, it was there all along!’” Trende told me.

Trump wasn’t supposed to win last time, making it harder to believe that he may lose this time. “You have this gnawing feeling in the back of your head about how wrong everyone was in 2016,” Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist, told me. “When people this time suggest, ‘There’s no way Trump can win; look at the polls; it’s impossible’—I heard that exact same nonsense in 2016. We all lived it.”