[COMMENTARY] Losing Big Might be Trump’s Best Campaign Strategy
As plans for the third and final presidential debate were being finalized, the Trump campaign demanded that the Commission on Presidential Debates change the topics to focus on foreign policy.
Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, asserted that it’s “long-standing custom” that the third debate focus on foreign policy.
The demand was odd on its face because both campaigns agreed to allow the moderator to select the topics weeks ago. It was even odder given Trump’s especially unpredictable, norm-shattering behavior over the past several weeks.
“Long-standing customs” haven’t guided the President’s administration, and even less so his campaign. In retrospect, we can point to the first debate as a key moment when Trump’s campaign got exceptionally erratic, but the trend has continued.
When Donald Trump walked off the stage after the first debate, many political commentators expressed confusion, dismay, or embarrassment about his unrestrained bellicosity. It was unprecedented in a presidential debate, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t strategic.
Trump’s performance in the first debate—which he repeated to a slightly moderated degree in the third debate—sheds light on the past month of his seemingly-unhinged campaign.
One way to understand what happened at the first debate is that Trump put the nails in his own coffin. Another possible way to explain it is that he adopted a “shoot-the-moon” strategy.
Shooting-the-moon comes from the card game, Hearts. The goal in Hearts is to get the lowest number of points possible, but shooting-the-moon is a special case. It means a player collects all the possible points. This usually happens when a player is already losing the hand and decides to go for broke. If someone shoots the moon successfully, they get zero points for the hand and everyone else gets the maximum. The “shoot-the-moon” strategy is to lose as badly as possible in order to win big.
If we revisit the first debate, Trump’s performance looks a little like shooting-the-moon. It looks like he was trying to lose badly. The reason this might be a good idea is becoming more obvious every day.
Trump’s re-election is in serious jeopardy. His poll numbers are significantly down from 2016. He’s lost support among white voters, who made up his majority in the last election. His campaign is hemorrhaging money. His administration is plagued by scandals. And COVID, environmental disasters, and the economy are dragging on his re-election hopes.
Trump isn’t likely to change the fundamentals of the campaign before the election. But he might be able to affect people’s voting behavior. Shooting-the-moon could help him do so.
One way shooting-the-moon could affect the vote is if Trump’s behavior makes Biden’s election look inevitable. If Biden looks like a shoe-in, voters might decide that waiting in line for several hours, worrying about mail-in ballot reliability, or facing Trump-supporting poll watchers isn’t critical. If your candidate is up by double-digits, what are the chances of your vote being a deciding factor?
The second, and more likely, possibility is that Trump’s debate performance was intended to reinforce the sense that American democracy is broken. Undermining faith in democracy is a common tactic among aspiring authoritarians—if they can make democracy look distasteful and corrupt, voting seems useless. It’s the same reason people light ballot boxes on fire.
Shooting-the-moon isn’t a political strategy so much as a rhetorical one designed to persuade people that democracy has run its course.
Given Trump’s affection for authoritarians, it’s hard not to see his campaign as an intensified effort to demonstrate the fragility of American democracy. He’s sowed distrust in voting, called for jailing his political opponents, threatened elected officials, and insinuated there won’t be a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election. He’s even threatened to flee the country if Biden wins. He doubled down on several of these assertions in the third debate.
None of Trump’s behavior appears to be helping him in the polls. But polls indicate what people tell you they believe, not how they’ll act at the voting booth. At least one pollster claims exactly that case about “hidden Trump voters.” So Trump has a motivation to try to depress his opponent’s voters, and losing badly in order to win big may not be his best option.
As a strategy, shooting-the-moon can rile up Trump’s voters. It may convince Biden’s supporters to skip the hassle of voting. It could even convince voters that American democracy is a lost cause and that they should just accept things as they are.
If Trump’s reckless behavior causes any one of those results, shooting-the-moon would be a successful strategy. If causes all of them, it could transform Trump’s re-election hopes.
Of course, shooting the moon in Hearts is dangerous because it can backfire spectacularly. The same is true in politics. We won’t really know for sure how successful the strategy is until the votes are counted. But the only way to ensure the votes reflect the will of the people is for every American to cast their ballot, however hard the candidates work to convince them not to.
About Ryan Skinnell
Ryan Skinnell is an associate professor of rhetoric at San José State University, the author “Faking the News: What Can Rhetoric Teach Us about Donald J. Trump,” and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.