US President Donald Trump will formally launch his re-election campaign on Tuesday, defiantly facing the threats of impeachment but hoping to float to office again on his steadfast voter base, a good economy and an opposition that has yet to coalesce around a challenger.
As he announces his run before an audience of 20,000 at a sports arena in Orlando, Florida, he will have before him the task of swimming against a tide of negative polls – less than half the people surveyed approve his job performance and he lags behind every possible Democratic challenger – and the threat of impeachment and investigations.
In 2016, his announcement was met with shrugs and amusement, but this time, despite the negatives, he is seen as a formidable challenger after successfully waging an asymmetrical election warfare.
He has made politics very personal with a tsunami of vitriol against his foes at home and abroad, and the media. But they too have retaliated and it will depend on how deep they will penetrate among the voters in the middle.
A measure of his potential vulnerability is the Republicans loss of control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections, which was pegged as a referendum on Trump. But his party improved its position in the Senate. For him to achieve anything meaningfully – if he is re-elected – he’ll also need to regain the House.
Even though the Republican Party convention to formally nominate him will be in August 2020 and till then he has to run the gauntlet of state primaries and caucuses to collect his delegates, he has gained complete control of the party and only one opponent, former Massachusetts governor William Weld, has announced a challenge that will be all but perfunctory.
On the other side, 20 Democratic aspirants for the privilege to challenge him will be tearing into each other for the next several months starting with their formal debates next week.
One of Trump’s hopes is that the nomination fight would have weakened the challenger who will emerge at that party’s convention in July 2020 as it happened with Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Trump would prefer to take on the front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, whom he has dubbed “Sleepy Joe”, and is a mellow campaigner, or someone on the left like Senators Bernie Sanders (Vermont) or Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), who could be ideologically vulnerable.
Counting on his mastery of turning adversity to advantage, he is virtually challenging the Democrats to impeach him while also facing about 15 inquiries from federal and state authorities on various allegations.
An impeachment, which would ultimately futile because the Democrats don’t have the strength in the Senate to oust him after the self-congratulatory drama in the House, could be a distraction for the election campaign against him.
For that reason, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and some centrist leaders oppose it. She is reported to have told her party members that she would rather see him in prison by defeating him and putting him on trial for his alleged crimes.
The report of the special investigation into allegations that Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russians during the 2016 elections found no such connection, disappointing the Democrats, but held out the hope that he could be charged with interfering with the probe, which could be the basis of an impeachment.
For a politician who thrives on bluster and aggression, Trump is portraying himself as the victim. He is pursued by a “witch hunt” run by the Democrats who “will stop at nothing to distract the American people from the great accomplishments of this administration”, he had tweeted recently.
His base remains strong – over 100,000 people applied for the 20,000 tickets to his campaign announcement and, according to his campaign, he collected 99 per cent of the contributions last quarter in amounts less than $200, averaging about $35, showing his appeal to a broad base of Americans, rather than the ‘plutocrats’.
His campaign has a war chest of at least $40 million, far more than any of the Democratic candidates, who will have used up a hefty portion campaigning against their counterparts in the primaries.
To make up for this imbalance, the Democrats are planning a $150-million generalized ad campaign against him, according to Politico news.
Even though things could change in a year, the economy is doing well and so far has not taken a hit from his trade wars against China and others including India. The unemployment rate at 3.6 per cent is at a 50-year low, and the stock markets have been doing well despite corrections with the Dow Jones index recording a gain of about 30 percent since he took office and now, although below its peak last September.
The trade wars he has started to reduce foreign exchange deficits and bring industries back to the US will take a long time to show results if he wins the confrontations. In the short-term, the trade war could hurt consumers, who will have to pay more for tariff-hit consumer goods, and certain sectors of the economy like mid-Western agriculture. But the farmers, who are a strong segment of his base, appear to be standing by him.
“Promises Made, Promises Kept” is expected to be one of his campaign slogans. Except for the tax cuts, which have propelled the economy, he has not kept the major ones. His promise of building a wall along the southern border is starting off on a more modest scale because he could not get the Democrat-controlled House to go along.
He said he would repeal the health insurance programme nicknamed “Obamacare” that was created under his predecessor Barack Obama and replace it with a “beautiful” new system. He hasn’t been able to do it either.
Getting traction among minorities and women is a major challenge for Trump and the Indian-Americans illustrate the problem. Even though he was the first presidential candidate to make a direct appeal to the Hindus, which other candidates had not despite religious appeals being the norm in US politics, he got only 16 per cent of their votes, according to an Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIAVote) survey.
And despite appointing the first Indian-American, Nikki Haley, to a cabinet post, several Indians to important administration and judicial positions, and being supportive of India internationally survey released last October showed he had only a 32 per cent favourable rating in the community, where 55 per cent viewed him unfavourably.
Besides the traditional support to the Democrats like all minorities, Indian-Americans are also put off by his fundamentalist Christian base and his rhetoric.