President Donald Trump should “believe in himself.” Former Vice President Joe Biden should “lay low until the Democratic convention.”
That was the advice that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager Robby Mook and former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offered to the candidate in the opposite political party on how to conduct their campaigns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just over 100 days away from Election Day, Mook and Spicer joined in a virtual conversation hosted by former Rep. Steve Israel, Director of Cornell’s Institute for Politics and Global Affairs to discuss presidential campaign strategies.
Since resigning from his White House post in 2017, Spicer has served as a senior adviser to the America First PAC — Trump’s only sanctioned re-election PAC — and host of Newsmax TV’s show Spicer & Co. While in his White House role, Spicer drew recognition and rebuke for his staunch defenses of the president and repeated false statements to the press. Melissa McCarthy’s viral Saturday Night Live portrayals of the secretary, and his appearance on the TV show Dancing With The Stars, also helped make Spicer a household name.
Mook is the president of the House Majority PAC, a super PAC intent on preserving a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. He is also a CNN political commentator, and a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center.
A presidential campaign between an incumbent and a challenger often depends on the state of the economy and the incumbent’s approval rating. This election can be viewed as a referendum on Trump’s job performance, Mook and Spicer said.
This positioning could be ideal for the Trump campaign to follow, said the two speakers –– the economy was improving before the COVID-19 recession, and Trump’s approval rating among Republicans stands at 91 percent, according to Gallup polling. However, the president’s struggle to adhere to a consistent message could derail this strategy if the campaign is not careful, they said.
Mook pointed to the president’s recent tirade against Biden in the Rose garden as an example in which the president tried to attack Biden from multiple angles — from his support of the Green New Deal to his stances on foreign policy with China and American infrastructure — many of which were unsubstantiated.
Many of Trump’s campaign advertisements focus on two issues: an economic boost during his administration and the appointment of conservative judges to the judiciary. Focusing on these strengths is a good tactic, Spicer said.
The wrong tactic for Trump to take, he said, is to make “outlandish” claims on Biden’s character, saying he’s “corrupt” or “evil,” Spicer said.
96% APPROVAL RATING IN THE REPUBLICAN PARTY. THANK YOU! We will win against a tired, exhausted man, Sleepy Joe Biden, in November.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2020
“Joe Biden might be a lot of things — I don’t agree with his policies, but I think he’s a nice guy and he comes across in-person as a nice guy,” Spicer said. “It’s hard to stick a label on someone that doesn’t necessarily apply.”
The better messaging strategy for the Trump campaign, he said, would be to tie Biden with the Democratic party’s more progressive leaders such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) to hurt Biden’s appeal with moderate voters.
Neither speaker held back on criticizing their own parties.
In reflecting on his experience leading Clinton’s campaign, Mook said, “When you’re a candidate like Biden or Hillary, it’s very easy to just sit back and let your opponent ‘hang themself.’ I think there is a danger with Trump — that he drives everything with so much force — it can quietly rob you as his opponent of the opportunity to animate your vision; why a voter should choose you, not just existing as an alternative.”
Spicer went so far as to question what he called the “laissez-faire” philosophy of the Republican party in encouraging more diverse female candidates to run for office.
“We have to go out and recruit these women and train them,” he said, reflecting on a shift in recruitment strategy after the 2018 midterm elections. This year, a record number of Republican women, 217 as of last month, filed for their candidacy.
“At the end of the day, if the party is not actively trying to help them, it is not going to be something that is doable in the short term,” Spicer praised several female candidates, including Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who is running for re-election in the 21st Congressional district, just north of Ithaca.
Swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania will be crucial in garnering key electoral votes, both speakers agreed. But they cautioned not to discount states like Minnesota, which are just as important. Robby Mook drew on his experience as Clinton’s campaign manager: “Hillary only won Minnesota by 2 points.”
Some political pundits attributed Trump’s success in 2016 to his campaign’s data arsenal and online communication strategy. For 2020, the Trump campaign’s strategy is similar — to identify every potential voter and find out what their priority issue is, Spicer said. Some voters “may never want to vote for Trump,” and therefore the campaign’s goal is to figure out how to prevent those people from voting for Biden.
“It’s really delving down to — almost on an individual basis — what makes them tick, and how you get them to vote — or not vote in some cases,” Spicer said.
Mook characterized the digital fight to compile and synthesize voter data as an “arms race” between the parties. He said the importance of data is sometimes overplayed, adding “You can have all the data in the world, but I’m telling you that there are voters out there who were really excited about [President Barack] Obama, and no data is going to spark that fire,” Mook said.
Spicer expressed doubt that this summer’s national reckoning on race will have any effect on individual’s vote choice. He was doubtful that any undecided voters would be swayed by the candidate’s stances on racial justice policy.
“If you were out there marching and protesting, the odds are that you weren’t going to vote for him in the first place; you were already going to vote for Biden,” he said.
“I think it’s a mistake for Joe Biden to go out and pretend that he’s going to solve all that,” Mook said. Issues of systemic racism are going to take years to change at every level of government — from city council members to members of Congress, he added.
Despite their stark contrast in partisan ideology, the conversation remained civil and thoughtful throughout, even when asked to advise the candidate in the opposite party.
To criticize Trump based on character and his actions is not the wise strategy, because Americans are so accustomed to his behavior, and won’t be phased by these types of criticisms anymore, Spicer said.
“If Joe Biden spends a penny on opposition research, it’s wasted money,” he said.
“The urge is to get out of the proverbial ‘basement in Delaware’ and get back on the campaign trail,” Spicer said. Biden has returned to a socially distanced campaign trail in recent months, pledging to not hold any rallies during the pandemic. Trump held two large-scale campaign rallies in June, but canceled one slated for July 11 in New Hampshire, blaming a tropical storm –– three officials confirmed that the event had actually been canceled because of attendance concerns, Politico reported.
The former White House Press Secretary said Biden should resist the temptation and “lay low, really juice the base, let the [Democratic] convention go by, and then turn the focus on.” He cited recent polls that show Biden beating Trump in battleground states. “If what’s happening right now is trending in your direction, don’t get in the way of it.”
“But,” Spicer added jokingly, “I don’t think the Biden campaign really wants my advice.”
Mook had a pep talk for the president: “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but believe in yourself! You are the most powerful person in the world. Your country needs you. Step up and help people. We are in a historic crisis; these are the times in which people rally around their president … Go lead!”
Regardless of their political stripes, Mook and Spicer both predicted that the electoral vote count will be close — a “sliver” instead of a “tsunami.”
Given the unpredictability of this election year, Mook said, “This election is going to be about the things that we couldn’t anticipate, not the things we could.”