Although many presidents have used their first term in office to quietly shore up their re-election bids, Donald Trump's overt focus on campaigning sets him apart from others who have sought to remain in the Oval Office.
Unlike other presidents who have used the early part of their terms to focus on policy, expand their bases and lay the groundwork for re-election, Trump has hosted explicit 2020 campaign rallies, touted his work in campaign ads and used policy issues to double down on his base.
But while the Republican's unusual election strategy triumphed over more traditional campaigning in the 2016 presidential contest, observers and experts question whether it will work again in the upcoming cycle.
Trump appears to revel in campaigning, said Ray La Raja, a University of Massachusetts Amherst political science professor and associate director of the UMass Poll. La Raja believes the president's affinity for the campaign trail, as well as his success in the 2016 contest, have shaped his approach to governing.
Candidates, including sitting presidents, typically are more covert about their campaign plans, running what insiders cast as an "invisible primary" where they meet with donors and build a team before officially announcing their bids, La Raja said. They also often wait to announce their campaigns until after the congressional midterm elections to avoid early media attention and criticism, La Raja added.
Former President Barack Obama, for example, waited until April 2011 before announcing his plans to seek re-election in 2012, while former President George W. Bush officially launched his 2004 re-election bid in May 2003.
Trump, by contrast, immediately turned his attention to 2020, filing paperwork for his re-election bid on Inauguration Day and holding a February campaign-style rally in Florida. That event was followed by subsequent campaign-style rallies in states he won, including Iowa, Ohio and Arizona.
Trump's campaign has also launched a series of online videos touting his successes in office, providing "real news" updates on Trump and taking aim at Democrats rumored to be considering presidential runs, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
"His presidency is run overtly like a campaign. He's doubling down on his base. Most presidents think about expanding their base, but he is making policies based on his electoral prospects," La Raja said in an interview. "Of course, all presidents do it. They want to satisfy constituencies. But he's just like, 'I have to hold onto my base.' That sounds like his strategy: hold on to the people who love him."
La Raja pointed to the Trump administration's move to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, as an example of Trump making policy decisions based on his electoral strategy and supporters -- not the will of party leaders.
"He sees the policy dovetailing with his electoral strategy. He's making policy that most experts, even people in his own party, disagree with him, like DACA, for instance. (Speaker of the House) Paul Ryan disagrees with him, but he's campaigning as president for this particular group that this is good politics for them," he said.
Some, including conservative commentator Ann Coulter, however, have accused the president of betraying his base by announcing plans to work with Democrats on a deal that would allow immigrants brought into the U.S. illegally as children to remain in the country in exchange for more border security funding -- a move which reportedly led some Trump backers to burn their "Make American Great Again" hats in protest.
Despite Trump's success in 2016, La Raja said he doubts the president's unusual approach will pay off again in 2020, arguing that he doesn't see it as a "winning strategy" or one that other candidates will adopt in future cycles.
"I don't think people are going to use Trump as a model for how to run for the presidency, although they will say he demonstrated a few things that you can get away with -- just basically going to the base, regardless of all this other stuff circulating around," he said. "So people will say, 'Listen, I can double down on my base and have a nastier fight, be more divisive than most presidential campaigns are about. But that's just a risky strategy. I just don't see others doing that."
Chris Galdieri, an associate professor of politics at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, also questioned the likelihood of Trump's success in a second presidential election.
Trump's unusual position of having won the Electoral College but not the popular vote, he argued, raises questions about his ability to win re-election by using the same campaign strategy he followed in 2016.
"I just don't know how much of Trump's election last year can be really ascribed to strategy and how much comes to other things like the (FBI Director) James Comey letter coming out the weekend before the election, or the fact that the last debate was so far in advance of Election Day," Galdieri said in an interview. "It's possible what happened was basically the electoral equivalent of getting struck by lightning and you can't really make it happen again."
Further complicating Trump's re-election chances, Galdieri said, are low approval numbers and energized opposition from Democrats, who have yet to see any high-profile expected 2020 candidates announce White House bids.
"Here we are, eight months into a new presidency and Donald Trump's approval numbers are terrible. He's polling in the mid-30s most of the time if you look at the Gallup daily tracker," Galdieri said. "So I think a lot of ambitious Democrats are looking at 2020 and thinking this could be an opportunity. If his numbers stay where they are, whoever gets the nomination in 2020 has a very good chance of becoming the 46th president."
Galdieri acknowledged that intraparty divisions that surfaced in 2016 could hurt Democrats' chances at winning back the White House or even chambers of Congress in upcoming elections.
Noting that there is no "heir apparent" on the Democratic side heading into the 2020 cycle, the professor said a wide field of Democratic candidates would likely leave the party facing the same issue Republicans did in 2016, when more than a dozen hopefuls launched White House bids.
"I think having seen the Republicans' experience with Donald Trump, they don't want to repeat that," Galdieri said of the Democratic Party. "But, we saw through the primaries and the DNC, there's a lot of people who have gotten active in Democratic politics, who don't necessarily care what the movers and shakers of the party think."
- Faculty News