President Donald Trump officially kicks off his re-election campaign Tuesday at an evening rally in Orlando, Florida. Even an astute observer could be forgiven, however, for asking whether the president ever really left the campaign trail.
The event is being billed as the “kickoff” to his 2020 campaign, even though the Trump era has been a blur of re-election rallies that practically started before he’d finished taking his oath of office.
Mere hours after being sworn in, the president filed papers to run for re-election. About a year later, the campaign formally announced in early 2018 that Trump was running for re-election, rolling out campaign staff as he continued to hold more rallies.
Since his inauguration, the administration has operated in a state of permanent campaign, with no hint of the usual honeymoon hiatus during which newly elected president’s typically pause to focus exclusively on governing and to hone their policy priorities.
The lines between the Trump White House and the Trump campaign have been fuzzy, with the president keeping his focus on re-election far earlier than any of his predecessors.
Further blurring the lines between campaigning and governing is that several members of the Trump administration have run afoul of the Hatch Act, the federal law prohibiting government workers from openly campaigning for political candidates.
Last week, the government agency responsible for enforcement of the law recommended that presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway be removed from her White House position after multiple Hatch Act violations.
Experts said that the sheer quantity and audacity or the violations puts Trump in a league all his own.
“You can throw out all the past precedents,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. “Modern presidents usually wait until their third year.”
And no one has ever commenced politicking for re-election quite so early in their first term as Trump has.
President Bill Clinton filed his paperwork a few weeks after being inaugurated, not a few hours as Trump did, and his first rally happened in 1995, just a few days later in the cycle than Trump’s upcoming Florida rally.
President Barack Obama held his campaign kickoff rally in Ohio in May 2012, as Mitt Romney was getting used to the “presumptive GOP nominee” label.
By contrast, Obama filed his re-election campaign paperwork with the FEC on April 3, 2011, almost two months earlier than his predecessor, George W. Bush, had in 2003.
“The reason they did that was so they didn’t have to dissolve the campaign fund and could keep raising money,” Cohen said.
Trump has them squarely beat, filing his paperwork on Inauguration Day 2017. Democrats angling to take on Trump have not even held their first primary debate yet.
“Clearly, not only Trump himself but his staff understand that Trump needs to go to these campaign rallies to buck himself up, to get re-energized. I think that’s one reason they decided to never stop campaigning. It’s also a way for him to stay in touch with his base.”
The decision about when to launch a re-election campaign is typically one that that hinges on pragmatic considerations, Cohen said. “They’re usually operating more on the life cycle of the presidency,” he said.
“Year One is the year a president has to get his biggest policy proposals done. Year Two is the midterms. Year Three and Year Four are taken up by re-election.”
Political observers noted that past presidents did not rely on campaign rallies nearly as much, because they rarely made news.
“No-drama” Obama was known for rousing speeches, but nothing compared to the daily, or hourly, bag of surprises that confront viewers of a Trump speech. One never know what Trump might say that could drive an entire news cycle for days — for better or for worse.
American University Assistant Professor of American Politics Elizabeth Sherman said Trump’s campaign probably started up so early because “they are eager to get into campaign mode, justify many more rallies, raise money, and attack the Dems.”
Sherman said that “this has the great benefit of changing the subject from the more controversial and more negative subjects of the past few months … Getting the re-election train going allows him to do what he does best — hold rallies, show enthusiastic support, go on offense and put Democrats on defense. These are all things that Trump does very well.”
American University political historian Alan Lichtman has developed a model that has correctly predicted the final result of seven of the last eight presidential elections fairly early.
He said Trump was beginning his campaign so early because, “the president loves campaigning, loves rallies, loves adulation, hates the hard work of actually governing.”
Lichtman noted that Trump has already posted strong fundraising numbers, so there is no impediment to an official kickoff that allows him to focus his time and energy on the campaign. The drawback for the president? “It makes him look political instead of presidential.”
Cohen said that, in his view, there are few drawbacks for Trump to campaign early. “For this president, I’m not sure they’re risking a whole lot by starting early. By having a permanent campaign, Trump has made sure there will be no legitimate challengers in a primary.”
“A normal campaign would look at precedent, would study internal polling, but would also keep its eye on the role of the president as Commander-in-Chief and national leader, and factor that in,” Lichtman said. “Obama was very concerned about this. Trump is not.”
“I think the president’s scheduled rallies to distract from things that are happening in the news,” Cohen said. “Not only to distract the media, but to distract himself. Instead of sitting in the Executive Residence brooding over something he saw on TV, he can get out of his room and re-energize.”
“It’s a great reaction for him,” Lichtman said. “I don’t think it’s pinned to any set of bad press. In any other administration, this issue of Conway repeatedly and willfully violating federal law would be a major scandal. If Barack Obama had done that, Republicans would be shouting from the rooftops. What Trump is really good at is distraction, deflection, or disruption.”
“Trump and his team are always eager to move away from bad press,” said Sherman, who ticked though the list of bad news in U.S. foreign policy: the current imbroglio with Iran, Trump’s hesitance to start another war, Venezuela, North Korea, and even tariff fights.
Being able to focus on bragging about the economy, and attacking his political enemies, will prompt cheers and “lock them up” chants.
“He will have fun being in his comfort zone on the attack and try to regenerate the excitement of 2016,” she said. “The Democrats have so many voices on so many topics, they will have a hard time countering his focus, energy and intensity.”