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Trump 2020 aides ‘making lemonade’ out of shutdown lemon

President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, has said several times that the campaign’s proprietary data show that the shutdown is a winning issue for the president. But in private, others close to the reelection effort aren’t saying the same thing. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

2020 Elections

The president publicly brags he is getting the best of Democrats as unhappy campaign officials find themselves trying to fire up his base.

President Donald Trump’s insistence on shutting down much of the government inadvertently handed his reelection team the opening issue of the 2020 campaign. It’s one many Trump political advisers would rather avoid.

Some Trump campaign aides worry that his showdown with congressional Democrats is framing his 2020 bid in a dangerously divisive way. But they say they are trying to make the best of it by using the shutdown fight to fire up his core supporters, raise money and collect voter data that will aid his reelection fight.

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“We’re making lemonade out of lemons,” said a person familiar with the campaign.

As polling turns increasingly against the president, and White House officials try to find a solution to what some consider a pointless standoff, Trump aides and advisers are worried that the president is doing his 2020 Democratic challengers an early favor.

“This is a really bad spot for him,” said one person familiar with Trump’s campaign, who fretted that Trump is not thinking strategically about how the shutdown might affect his reelection chances. “He may just be fighting because he doesn’t know what the hell else to do.”

In public at least, Trump betrays no such doubt. At the end of a tweet attacking “the Radical Democrats” as a party of “of open borders and crime,” Trump added: “#2020!” It was Trump’s most explicit reference to the partial government shutdown, which is now the longest in U.S. history, as a theme in the upcoming campaign.

Given little other choice, Trump’s campaign team is playing the hand their candidate has dealt them as best they can.

Campaign aides publicly insist that Trump’s demand for $ 5.7 billion to build a southern border wall is a winner — despite public polling to the contrary. Trump allies say that he will win credit for fighting to fulfill a promise Trump he made to voters as a 2016 candidate.

Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, has said several times that the campaign’s proprietary data show that the shutdown is a winning issue for the president.

“If you look at the people who are kind of these swing voters, who possibly may not like him for personality or other reasons, the No. 1 reason they will vote for him is because of his stance on voter security,” Parscale told Fox News last week.

Parscale declined to offer hard numbers, and data from independent sources suggests the issue is mostly hurting the president. On Twitter, Parscale cited a Morning Consult poll indicating that a plurality of voters believe there is a “crisis” on the southern border. But the same poll showed just 44 percent support building a wall to solve it — while 47 percent oppose it — and the poll does not indicate that the issue is translating to higher support for Trump personally.

Despite that evidence, the Trump campaign has spent over $ 1 million dollars in the past two weeks on Facebook ads touting the president’s demand for a wall, according to Facebook’s ad archive. Those ads also enable the Trump team to collect contact information for supporters and solicit campaign donations.

Between Dec. 30 and Jan. 12, the Trump campaign spent more on Facebook than any other political organization — an effort one Trump campaign aide described as part of an attempt to fill a messaging gap from the White House rather than to pounce on a politically advantageous issue. One message featuring a red banner saying “Build the Wall” read: “I want to be able to show Senate Democrats a list of the many American voters that will NOT be happy if the wall isn’t built. I need YOUR NAME on the list. Sign our Official Petition to the Senate now!”

The Trump campaign has also poured money into advertising on YouTube, purchasing the site’s masthead spot — meaning it was visible to anyone who visited the hugely popular site for the entire day of Jan. 6. That’s the largest possible ad placement online, according to Tara McGowan, founder and CEO of Acronym, a progressive nonprofit focused on digital advertising. McGowan compared that to “buying a television ad during the Super Bowl.”

“Liberals care more about illegal immigrants than they do about our own citizens. It’s time to put AMERICA FIRST,” Trump says in the ad, which prompts supporters to connect with the campaign by text message.

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That messaging, however, may be deepening support among Trump’s core voters rather than broadening his base. A poll of voters in eight battleground congressional districts conducted by The New York Times’ Upshot and Siena College this month found that support for the president tracks closely with support for building the wall.

“The base may be happy but recognition that there’s a broad swath that’s frustrated with both sides,” said the person familiar with the campaign. “I don’t think anybody’s saying ‘We should keep the shutdown going on so we can keep raising more money and collecting more data.’”

And if the president and his campaign team had hoped to use the shutdown to draw 2020 Democratic candidates into a debate over immigration and the wall, that has not yet happened, with recently declared candidates largely avoiding the issues as they roll out their campaigns.

Julián Castro, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has been one exception, making the wall a focal point of his announcement speech this past weekend. “We say no to building a wall and say yes to building community,” Castro told supporters.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who is mulling a presidential bid, also launched a digital ad ripping the president’s wall proposal, arguing that it would “exile hundreds of thousands of acres of the U.S. to a no man’s land,” “destroy your public lands,” and “send the wrong message to the world.”

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Inside the White House, aides are harboring their own doubts. They are increasingly concerned about the toll the shutdown could take on the administration. During talks with Democrats in recent weeks, Vice President Mike Pence tried to strike a deal for $ 2.5 billion in wall funding. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner has floated a broader immigration compromise. And White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, a former Freedom Caucus firebrand, is open to anything that will bring the shutdown to a close, according to a half-dozen current and former administration officials.

Many White House officials are also worried that the shutdown could affect what they consider one of Trump’s greatest political assets: the strong U.S. economy. The booming economy has been a point of pride for the president, who closely monitors the stock market. White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said in early January that the shutdown knocks 0.1 percent off the GDP every two weeks it persists, and he conceded on Tuesday that the White House had underestimated the economic impact of a standoff that is approaching the one month mark and has 800,000 federal employees going without paychecks.

Hassett told the Fox Business Network on Tuesday that the initial White House estimate had neglected to factor in losses to government contractors, who are paid billions of dollars per year. He said a revised estimate has found that “the damage is a little bit worse because of government contractors, something that was excluded from our first analysis.”

Others simply believe that, four weeks in, Trump has more to lose than to gain in what has become a high-stakes political gambit that could cost him with his base if he strikes a compromise.

“If it ends with some kind of capitulation, it could be the beginning of real fracturing in Trump’s core base of support. If it ends with a deal that can be plausibly sold as advancing the case for the wall, then Trump loses little but gains little. That’s a bad place to be,” said Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs, a leading conservative policy journal. “He’s fighting for something that voters outside his core coalition don’t value, so he has much more to lose than to win.”

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