President Donald Trump is running for re-election from what should be, in theory, a much better position than he had in 2016. He's now the incumbent. He has the support of the entire Republican Party behind him. He has experience leading a national presidential campaign. His opponent, Joe Biden, has emerged from a contentious primary. And while the 2016 Trump campaign was cobbled together with whatever was lying around, the president has amassed an obscene amount of money for his 2020 run.
And yet, his campaign still appears to be a disordered mess.
Take, for instance, a recent report from the Daily Beast. It found that in the last month, the Trump campaign has spent $400,000 on an ad buy for Washington, D.C.
Why D.C.? There's no electoral advantage. The city has given its three electoral votes to the Democratic Party nominee in every presidential race since 1961. Hillary Clinton won 90 percent of the D.C. vote in 2016. There's just no reason for the Trump campaign to court voters in the district.
Except, the Beast found, there may be won particular voter the Trump campaign is trying to woo:
With Trump stuck in that milieu of anxiety, his re-election team is hoping that the ads may put him at ease that his formidable political machine is hard at work defending him and attacking his enemies. Trump is a voracious consumer of cable news, and—the thinking goes—is likely to see the spots pop up between segments of his favorite shows.
This is an absurd and childish way for any candidate, let alone a president, to behave and to be viewed by his own staff, but he remains the man in White House.
And it's likely that the campaign's motivations are somewhat more cynical than they were described to the Daily Beast. The campaign wants to keep Trump happy, of course, but not for altruistic reasons — the members of its leadership know they will only keep their jobs if they make happy. So it seems Trump is essentially letting the people running his campaign use its money to convince Trump that they're doing a good job. He's the target of the con that he's overseeing.
Aside from this major dysfunction, the campaign is utterly failing at one of its core jobs: defining the opponent.
Trump himself likes to throw a lot of insults at Joe Biden, but they never seem to stick. His "Sleepy Joe" nickname hasn't gained anywhere near the traction of "Crooked Hillary," and it doesn't tap into long-held concerns about Biden as a candidate.
It is intrinsically hard for Trump to define someone like Biden, who has been in the public eye for decades and was the vice president for a popular and successful president. Voters feel like they already know Biden, his strengths and his faults — that's likely why he won the Democratic primary so handily.
But Trump has been trying to define Biden for a long while. He even got impeached over his ham-fisted and corrupt effort to drum up a foreign investigation of the former vice president in the summer of 2019, alleging a nefarious arrangement between his son and a Ukrainian energy company. (A Ukrainian prosecutor recently said a review of the matter turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on Hunter Biden's part.")
None of the attacks have stuck. Trump never embraced Tara Reade's rape allegation against Biden, perhaps worried about the many more credible assault allegations that have been lodged against himself. Like many of Biden's critics of the left, Trump and the right wing have tried to paint the former vice president as suffering from extreme dementia. Yet these attacks have gained little steam. Sometimes, Trump has just tried to declare Biden isn't relevant at all, and he's tried to reframe the race as a campaign against socialism:
I'm not running against Sleepy Joe Biden. He is not even a factor. Never was, remember 1% Joe? I'm running against the Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats & their partner, the real opposition party, the Lamestream Fake News Media! They are vicious & crazy, but we will WIN! https://t.co/ltdHSmaMYT
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2020
Clearly, Trump wanted to run against Sen. Bernie Sanders, thinking the attacks on socialism would be an easy path to victory. So he wants to try to tie Biden to the far left wing. The problem with this, of course, is that Biden explicitly and repeatedly repudiated Sanders' approach to politics during the primary campaign. Since then, Biden has committed to working with Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others, and he has adopted an impressively progressive campaign agenda. But Biden fundamentally won the primary by running in the perceived moderate lane, so it will be exceedingly hard for Trump or anyone else to get the public to drop that view of Biden as a candidate.
The most worrying sign for Trump's campaign, though, is not that it's hard to make a criticism of Biden stick. It's that they're trying to make so many criticisms stick, and some of them are contradictory.
Just recently, the Trump campaign jumped on Biden's remarks to Charlamagne tha God, in which the former vice president said that if you don't know whether you're supporting Trump or Biden in the upcoming race, "you ain't black." (Biden later apologized for the comments, saying: "I should not have been so cavalier.") The Trump campaign quickly began selling "You ain't black" t-shirts, ostensibly mocking Biden for racially insensitive remarks.
But now, Trump wants to say Biden is too eager to give in to the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement:
Not only will Sleepy Joe Biden DEFUND THE POLICE, but he will DEFUND OUR MILITARY! He has no choice, the Dems are controlled by the Radical Left.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 7, 2020
This is at odds, too, with the president's efforts to attack Biden's history of setting back black Americans "big time" by passing the 1994 crime bill.
In theory, you might be able to square all these seemingly conflictual attacks. But the problem is that they don't tell a clean story about Biden. Is he controlled by the left? Too conservative to be accepted by his own party? Does he have an overly punitive and racist view of criminal justice? Or is he ready to tear down the status quo in favor of perceived racial justice goals?
Trump's campaign — which, let's be honest, is forced to follow wherever Trump's Twitter account takes it — has no coherent answer to these questions. The only consistent throughline in all the attacks is that Joe Biden is bad — which probably only appeals to people already inclined to support Trump.
This isn't just a result of the president's lack of discipline. He could be relatively consistent in his attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016, after all, arguing that she was a corrupt product of a broken system that had abandoned vulnerable citizens. But there's no clear message at all coming from the president or his campaign about his opponent. And as polls find the president's political standing in decline, he's going to need to fix his dysfunctional and scattered campaign quickly — or winning a second term may be out of reach.