President Donald Trump has fundamentally changed American presidential politics. Traditionally, candidates campaigned during the season leading up to the election. If they were victorious, they worked in the White House and on Air Force One until a viable challenger from the opposing party arose.
Trump’s approach is more like a professional boxer. The old sports adage is “if you stay ready, you never have to get ready.” The president never left campaign mode with the understanding that if he continues to engage his base, he never has to find ways to re-energize them.
Pennsylvania was key to his relatively narrow victory over former Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton. The Keystone state went to Trump by a razor-thin 0.7 points.
He visited the state 50 times prior to his win in November of 2016 and he also made several more trips with Vice President Mike Pence. Trump has focused more on Pennsylvania politics than any other state because it is so vital to a 2020 victory. The state holds 20 electoral votes and can swing either direction depending on voter turnout.
President Trump suffered an embarrassing defeat when he threw his weight behind Rick Saccone, who was edged out by Democratic Marine Veteran Conor Lamb.
Instead of backing away from the state and showing his strength in areas where Republicans are sure to win, Trump has gambled on Rep. Lou Barletta, a long shot to unseat popular moderate Democratic Senator Bob Casey. Barletta’s campaign has had moments where it has been strapped for cash and Trump’s approval rating in the state has dipped as low as 30 percent.
If Trump thinks his presence will motivate the conservative parts of the state to overpower the Philadelphia metropolitan area, he is sorely mistaken.
Casey’s name does not galvanize Republicans in Pennsylvania, who see him as reasonable and centrist. In addition, he is a native son of working class, industrial Northeastern Pennsylvania. He’s not a New York City socialite like the president. In addition, Casey cannot be tied closely to President Obama, as he was very tepid in his support of the former president in 2012.
Despite those facts, the president took aim at Casey and strongly endorsed Barletta. The reason for his endorsement has little to do with Barletta himself. Casey is an early test for the person that the president views as his most difficult possible opponent in 2020, Joe Biden.
Biden is also an Irish Catholic from Northeastern Pennsylvania like Casey and the “scrappy kid from Scranton” is largely credited with delivering the state to Obama in 2008 and 2012. Biden also campaigned for Conor Lamb, whose win was one of Trump’s lowest moments.
Joe Biden challenges Trump’s strongest attribute. Trump comes across as a tell-it-like-it-is straight shooter. Biden has the upper hand, however, in likability and honesty, as Trump has told over 4,229 confirmed lies in 558 days.
Though Biden can be tied to Obama, he is still not the lightning rod that Hillary Clinton was. Still, the White House is very aware of the prospect of Biden running and sees Casey versus Barletta as a scrimmage and case study into Biden’s strength in 2020.
Trump’s focus on Biden is probably causing him to overlook potential challengers like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a combat veteran who has shown a willingness to part from the Democratic establishment.
While Trump has disparaged those who have been prisoners of war, and while both he and Biden received deferments during Vietnam, Gabbard still serves the Hawaii National Guard. The country is also clamoring for female leadership and biracial identity give her a universality that could unite us at a time when we are badly fractured as a nation.
Not to mention Gabbard is 37 years old and has much less political baggage than the two men who are in their 70s.
Pennsylvania is a microcosm of the country. It has large blighted urban areas that struggle with crime and poverty. It contains rural areas and old industrial towns. It’s home to new immigrants and families who date back to the colonial period. A Barletta win in Pennsylvania would quiet the chatter about the major loses Trump suffered to Doug Jones and Conor Lamb and give a big boost moving into the 2020 campaign.
But beating Casey is improbable, and focusing on Biden may be shortsighted.
Casey’s victory will indeed be “great entertainment.”
Jason Nichols is a lecturer in African American Studies at the University of Maryland and a prolific progressive commentator.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.