President Donald Trump spent his week thousands of miles from Washington, holding back-to-back rallies in Arizona and Colorado in a trip that will culminate with one more in Las Vegas the day before Saturday’s Democratic caucuses.
His trip west included a mix of official events, fundraisers and rallies, but, according to interviews with several administration and campaign aides, the purpose is simple: get under Democrats’ skin.
Friday’s Las Vegas rally builds on previous efforts by the President and his campaign to divert attention from the race to replace him. Trump also traveled to early voting states Iowa and New Hampshire ahead of their respective caucuses and primary, an effort to insert Trump’s voice amid a tidal wave of Democratic ads and messaging.
And the President isn’t expected to halt his counter-programming tour once he returns home. After a brief trip to India, Trump is expected to travel to South Carolina ahead of its February 29 Democratic primary and just days later to North Carolina.
Most of the President’s visits to states where Democrats are campaigning have no larger strategy than a desire from the President to get involved, attack his rivals and boost himself. Last summer, aides described a president who was itching to get on the campaign trail as he watched Democrats soak up airtime on cable television, though some tried to talk him out of it by pointing out that incumbent presidents typically sit back and let the rival party fight it out until there’s a nominee.
Not so with President Trump, who is eager to find his foil ahead of the upcoming election.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, he dispatched nearly 80 campaign surrogates, including Vice President Mike Pence, on the type of retail politicking he has largely avoided since taking office. His campaign bought a flood of Facebook ads to distract from the Democrats battling for the nomination.
It’s been a successful strategy, the campaign says, and has led to significant earned media.
“When the President comes to town, it is a big deal,” a senior Trump campaign official told CNN. “We see most people get their news from local sources and so of course if we’re going into town with the President of the United States, we’re going to be the cover and the conversation of all local media.”
The campaign benefits from earned media in crucial local markets the night before a rally while supporters camp out, the day of and buildup to the event, and the day after.
“Everybody’s talking about the speech, everybody’s talking about the rally, everybody’s talking about the crowd, and everybody’s talking about the President’s message. That’s important when we go into these states that we get those conversations and talk to those voters,” the official said.
President Trump and his campaign have touted record turnout for an incumbent in Iowa and New Hampshire’s Republican contests. The President received 31,421 votes — 97.1% — in the Iowa caucus, while then-incumbent President Barack Obama received more than 25,000 votes in 2012, according to the Des Moines Register. And Trump swept New Hampshire’s delegates with 85.7% of the vote. Nevada’s Republican Party canceled its 2020 caucus, as did South Carolina and a handful of other states.
Friday’s Las Vegas campaign event is the third rally in three days for President Trump, who addressed throngs of supporters in Phoenix, Arizona, on Wednesday, and Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Thursday.
The White House has mixed a few official events with what is otherwise a campaign-focused trip this week. President Trump met with Olympics officials on Tuesday, discussed water accessibility issues with rural California stakeholders Wednesday, and attended a Hope for Prisoners graduation on Thursday, alongside the rallies and multiple fundraising events.
The President has retreated, via Air Force One, to his Las Vegas hotel property for the past three nights, a condition of his for making the four-day trip.
“We wouldn’t be in these states if we didn’t see a pathway to victory,” a Republican National Committee official told CNN.
Another perk of his Democratic campaign trolling? Boosting vulnerable Republican senators in Colorado and Arizona. Sens. Cory Gardner and Martha McSally are both up for reelection in 2020 with tough roads ahead, and the Trump campaign is hoping to give them a boost with the visits.
President Trump narrowly lost Nevada to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Ahead of the rally, his campaign ran a full-page advertisement in the Las Vegas Review-Journal the same day that Democrats faced off in a contentious debate that featured former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg for the first time. After Democrats sparred on the debate stage at the Paris Las Vegas Wednesday night, President Trump’s motorcade took a lap of its own down the Las Vegas Strip on the way to the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, a gleaming, golden, “TRUMP”-emblazoned tower at the end of the strip.
With rallies and other efforts in these early voting states, the campaign says it’s testing its field strategy while looking ahead to the general election as Democrats face a crowded field and a chaotic nominating process.
Trump Victory, a juggernaut campaign organization comprised of both the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee’s national and state offices, got the incumbent head start on Democrats from day one. Trump filed his official reelection paperwork on Inauguration Day in 2017 and has consistently held campaign-style rallies since taking office. And on the ground, Trump Victory has been able to recruit and engage volunteers for 2020 essentially since the 2016 campaign ended.
Trump Victory has 50 staff on the ground in Arizona, over a dozen in Colorado, and dozens of staff in Nevada, according to the Republican National Committee official.
Looking ahead, as the Democratic race swings into full gear with more states casting their votes on Super Tuesday, the campaign says its strategy will also shift toward its general election map.
“Super Tuesday is going to look different than Iowa and New Hampshire,” the campaign official said, adding that the campaign still plans to be engaged.
For instance, President Trump will host a rally in Charlotte on March 2, the day before the key swing state of North Carolina votes on Super Tuesday. Incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, an ally of the President’s, also faces a tight reelection race.
“Democrats are fighting to Milwaukee, we’re fighting to November … We’re looking at a general election map. That’s where our eye is right now and where our focus is going to stay,” the official said, characterizing the campaign’s efforts as “protecting the 2016 map with an eye toward expansion.”
But while he’s hoping to antagonize Democrats, President Trump seems to be ruffled by his potential opponents, too.
Lately, President Trump has been irritated by public polling numbers showing him losing to Democrats in various head-to-head matchups.
“Internal REAL Polls show I am beating all of the Dem candidates. The Fake News Polls (here we go again, just like 2016) show losing or tied. Their polls will be proven corrupt on November 3rd, just like the Fake News is corrupt!” he tweeted Wednesday.
Though campaign aides have privately conceded that even some internal polls show the President down in some matchups with potential Democratic rivals, they have assured him that would shift as it becomes clearer who the Democratic nominee is. The reelection effort has kept its poll numbers tightly held after unflattering numbers leaked last summer.