How Republicans Narrowed the Gap in the Election

The GOP relied on the president’s flair for the theatrical plus a lot of old-fashioned canvassing

Photo illustration; Image source: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

With Election Day here, Republicans are feeling more optimistic about the prospects for Donald Trump’s reelection than they have in weeks, thanks to Trump’s improved poll numbers, a strong economic rebound in the third quarter, and mammoth crowds that have turned out for the president’s rallies despite an ongoing pandemic.

Trump has stumped the country in recent days with an amplified version of his long-standing laundry list of grievances, grudges, and resentments. Appearing on stages alongside a video of Biden gaffes and stumbles (punctuated with commentary from Fox News host Sean Hannity), Trump unspools a tale of economic success and “winning, winning, winning.” In this narrative, the coronavirus is only a minor impediment: After all, he survived it, as did his wife and “very tall son,” Barron. In Trump’s telling, the only threat is Joe Biden, his constant lockdowns (Biden, of course, does not want to “cancel Christmas and Thanksgiving,” as Trump alleges, but for states to follow public health guidance), and his “socialist” sidekick, Kamala Harris. There are added wrinkles — and insults — depending on which state Trump is in. In places with Democratic governors like Pennsylvania and North Carolina, Trump has demanded that they “open up their states.”

Where Trump was relatively tight-lipped in the days leading up to the election in 2016, this year he’s had no problem veering off-script. When a crowd in Miami on Sunday night chanted “Fire Fauci,” Trump replied, “Don’t tell anybody but let me wait until a little bit after the election.” Two days earlier in Michigan, he falsely claimed doctors were deliberately inflating the number of deaths from the coronavirus in order to be paid more. He’s also returned to some more familiar territory, complaining about his impeachment and Adam Schiff (whom he refers to as “watermelonhead”).

Even Trump’s attacks on Biden have tended to wander; he has said the former vice president “is shot” and “corrupt.” Trump has also questioned whether Biden is really from his hometown Scranton, Pennsylvania, suggesting the city is nothing more than a political prop. And he claimed that the former vice president would be easy to defeat in a fistfight. “Those legs have gotten very thin, ” Trump mused to a crowd in Opa-Locka, Florida, on Sunday.

Where Trump was relatively tight-lipped in the days leading up to the election in 2016, this year he’s had no problem veering off-script.

These lines are invariably received with gusto by crowds numbering in the thousands and tens of thousands who stand outdoors at airports for hours in order to see Trump emerge from Air Force One to give his closing message.

The final days of the Trump campaign have been about more than just rallies. Vice President Mike Pence stumped the country to offer a far more orthodox pitch for reelection, touting the pre-pandemic economic gains and social conservative achievements of the Trump administration, a message buttressed by the campaign’s television advertising. Other surrogates, including four of Trump’s children and first lady Melania Trump, crisscross the country as well.

In addition, Republicans ran a robust ground game. Whereas Democrats shied away from door-to-door canvassing in the Covid-19 era until the last minute, Republicans never stopped in the first place. In the final week of campaigning, volunteers for Trump Victory (the joint effort of the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign) knocked on more than 4 million doors and claimed to have a total of 2.6 million volunteers overseen by 3,000 staff members. Such organizing has been a source of anxiety for Democrats who see themselves at a disadvantage, relying on text messages and phone calls rather than in-person interactions. The Biden campaign, for its part, has touted its digital outreach via these methods and claimed 58 million contacts via calls, text messages, and door knocks on the eve of the election.

The aggressive traditional Republican outreach machine has received far less attention than the president’s speeches or his supporters’ boisterous — and at times contentious — motorcades and boat parades. Over the weekend, caravans of Trump supporters received national attention for surrounding a Biden campaign bus in Texas leading to an FBI investigation as well as shutting down traffic on both the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey and the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York.

The question, of course, is what happens after Election Day. As the specter of litigation looms over the election and with the Trump campaign already maneuvering to stop the counting of ballots, there is the sense that Tuesday won’t be the end of the process. With an unprecedented number of absentee ballots being cast, it will be difficult for election officials to call a winner in a number of swing states; it is anticipated that there will be legal fights on an array of issues, ranging from late-arriving ballots to when the count can be complete.

It may not reach the level of a constitutional crisis but it’s almost sure to drag out the process for days — if not longer. Given how low expectations were for Trump after his disastrous debate performance in Cleveland and subsequent diagnosis with the coronavirus, even the prospect of taking the election into overtime is an improvement over where the GOP was only one month ago.

Ben Jacobs is a politics reporter based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter at @bencjacobs.

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