Trump’s Tweets Are Hurting Him, And His Aides Can’t Stop Him
A new study indicates that President Trump’s Twitter rants may be having a negative impact on the very people he’s going to need to continue staying loyal to him:
Ten months into his presidency, the failure of any one single scandal to sink his administration has led some in the media to suggest that Trump is like “Teflon,”with the grime that would stick to (and ruin) other politicians simply slipping right off. But the numbers show that nothing could be further from the truth—Trump’s scandals aren’t just damaging him, they’re causing swing voters to reevaluate both his priorities and the very health of the economy.
The Messina Group recently completed a long-term research project looking at a specific group who helped decide the 2016 election: white voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin who supported Barack Obama in 2012 but in 2016, did not vote for Hillary Clinton, instead choosing to either stay home or vote for Trump or a third-party candidate. What we found—combined with this month’s election results—should worry Trump and every ally who has hitched their wagon to his fast-burning star.
Among the swing voters most critical to his viability, Donald Trump isn’t just vulnerable, he’s harming himself. Even as Wall Street reaches new highs in profitability and Trump endlessly brags about his stock-market numbers, these voters aren’t seeing the improvement in their own lives. And, most worryingly for Trump and Republicans, the president’s outlandish statements cause the voters we spoke with to believe that he’s focused more on his own petty dramas than on improving their families’ lives.
At the beginning of April, we convened an online focus group of voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania who supported Obama but not Clinton. The overriding opinion expressed by the participants was that, yes, Donald Trump was racist, sexist, and offensive, but he was shaking up Washington and working to improve the economy. As one woman in Michigan put it, Trump “wants to change things that everyone has been complaining or talking about for years.”
It’s a belief that was underlined by the results of our polls from both July and October, which showed that key voters in these three states gave Trump much higher marks on his handling of the economy than his job approval—among this subset of voters, a late October poll had Trump at a net -23 points on job approval but only -7 on handling the economy. This trend is consistent with what public polls are showing; in the latest NBC/WSJ poll from the end of October, Trump’s job approval was -20, but his rating for handling the economy was +5.
That said, the white Obama-Non-Clinton voters we surveyed were clear: If the economy does not improve measurably, they are not going to give Trump a second chance—and they already have a clear reason to explain his failure: Twitter.
Consistently, the members of our focus groups worried that Trump was so pre-occupied with picking Twitter fights and the general chaos of his administration that he was not focusing on making the economy better. This sentiment is backed by quantitative data that offers a peek at Trump’s political kryptonite.
Based on the focus-group findings, we drafted four distinct messages about Trump and his handling of the economy. In one, we explained that he had stacked his cabinet with billionaires who weren’t looking out for everyday Americans; in another, we offered facts about the economy under Trump, including stagnant wages; in the third, we highlighted how Trump’s budget would cut programs important to the middle class and reroute the money into tax cuts for the wealthy. And finally, we tied his incendiary, all-hours tweets to his failure to bring jobs back to the U.S.
When exposing all voters in the survey to a tough message laying out the consequences of Trump’s tweeting—how it signals what he really cares about and prevents him from focusing his energy on making good on his promises to improve people’s lives—we found that the overall rating of Trump’s handling of the economy dropped by 6 points. And among the key Obama-Non-Clinton voter demographic? It dropped a staggering 21 points.
Similarly, when voters were told that Trump wants to give massive tax cuts to the wealthy while cutting programs for middle-class families, voters’ ratings of his handling of the economy sunk by 8 points overall and by an astounding 24 points among Obama-Non-Clinton voters.
Perhaps even more interesting is that when we re-surveyed Obama-non-Clinton voters six weeks later, those who’d been exposed to the tweeting message had a much dimmer view of Trump than those exposed to other messages.
The real-world application of these findings is clear: Voters might give President Trump a pass for individual outrageous statements, but if Democrats continually tie his pattern of remarks back to the economy, voters will not be forgiving. Progressives across the country should be driving this message relentlessly: Donald Trump is more focused on helping the rich and picking fights on Twitter then he is with making people’s lives better.
It’s worth noting that this comes from Jim Messina, who ran Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election bid and that his research seems aimed at trying to find messages that Democrats could use in 2018 or 2020 to try to win back the voters in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania that Democrats lost to Trump last year. That being said, his findings are consistent with other polling of Americans in general and Trump loyalists in particular that show that the Chief Executive’s constant Twittering, which often coincides with things he happens to see on cable news networks such as Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, are not helping him. For example, in June a Morning Consult poll found that nearly 70% of respondents say that Trump needs to lay off Twitter, including 53% of self-identified Republican Trump supporters. In late June, a Fox News poll found that 71% of respondents said that Trump’s Twitter habits were hurting his agenda, with 53% of Republicans and 75% of Independents agreeing with that statement. Additionally, the same poll found that 59% of Republicans believe that Trump needed to be “more careful” about his tweeting. A July poll from ABC News and The Washington Post, meanwhile, found that 67% of Americans disapprove of the President’s use of Twitter, while 70% say that he has acted in an unpresidential manner since taking office and 68% don’t seem him as a positive role model. Additionally, this poll found that 58% and 78% of women called the tweets inappropriate, and 29% of women find the tweets “interesting” while 58% of men say that they do. Also, 46% of white respondents see Trump’s tweets as dangerous, while 65% of nonwhites feel the same way and just 41% of Republicans say they find the tweets “refreshing.” Finally, an October Quinnipiac poll found that 70% of respondents think Trump should stop tweeting.
Notwithstanding these bad numbers, Politico reports that Trump’s aides have basically given up trying to control his Twitter habit:
When candidate Donald Trump waged a Twitter war against Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who rebuked him from the stage of the Democratic National Convention, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were sent in for a “tough-love talk” about the efficacy of the tweets, two former campaign officials recalled.
Controlling potentially damaging tweets was a job left mostly to the legal team in the early days of the administration. Marc Kasowitz, a former Trump attorney, and Jay Sekulow, a current member of the president’s legal team, gave Trump one simple rule to guide his tweeting habit: Don’t comment online about the Russia investigation. “The message was, tweet about policy, tweet about politics, but don’t attack the special counsel,” recalled another former aide.
None of the advice seemed to have any lasting effect on a president who views acting on his own impulses as a virtue. And these days, the staff has basically stopped trying: There is no character inhabiting the West Wing who is dispatched to counsel the president when he aims the powerful weapon of his Twitter feed at himself.
Some Republicans have expressed concern that chief of staff John Kelly doesn’t try to control the president’s Twitter feed, which often distracts from enacting his legislative agenda. “Someone, I read the other day, said we all just react to the tweets,” Kelly told reporters traveling with the president in Vietnam last week. “We don’t. I don’t. I don’t allow the staff to. Believe it or not, I do not follow the tweets.”
But Kelly’s strategy makes sense to the people who have been around Trump the longest, and who have seen that the talks and guidelines never succeeded in holding back the flood of the president’s opinions for long.
Trump lasted only until mid-June when — against the advice of his attorneys and amid news reports that a grand jury had approved the first charges in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — he went all caps in his anger. “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people! #MAGA,” he tweeted on June 15.
Last March, Trump accused President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower, while offering no evidence to back up the incendiary allegation. “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
From the start, the idea that anyone in the White House, including people like Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Chief of Staff John Kelly, would be able to control the President’s tweeting should have been dismissed as ridiculous. Ever since he took over the principal use of his Twitter account in about 2011, Trump has used the social media platform for whatever he sees fit. In the beginning, it was a vehicle to attack people who criticized him and to attack people he saw as political opponents such as Rosie O’Donnell and other celebrities as well as President Obama and Democrats (although there are a number of tweets from the time of the 2012 election that were actually complimentary toward the President.) He also used it during that time period to begin spreading the birther conspiracy theories that he became infamous for spreading during the period in the spring of 2011 when he used speculation about running for President in 2012 primarily as a vehicle to boost ratings for Celebrity Apprentice. In later years, his tweets became increasingly more vitriolic toward Obama and others on the political left and, in retrospect, clearly seem to have been part of a strategy to build up a following for a Presidential run in 2016. Once he entered the race, Trump continued to use the Twitter feed in an entirely unconventional manner and had no filter as he used it to attack anyone he saw as a convenient target, including his fellow Republicans, members of the media, and anyone else who dared to speak out against him.
Trump’s Twitter habit has continued since he took office, of course, and he’s used it to attack everyone from CNN and MSNBC to political opponents in both the Democratic and Republican parties. He’s also used it to try to undermine the investigation into Russian interference in the election and purported contacts between Trump campaign officials and officials part of or close to the Russian government. On more than one occasion, these tweets have served to completely divert attention from the agenda that Republicans in general and even his own White House have tried to push at a given point in time, and several times it’s been the case that something he tweets on a Monday or Tuesday ends up being the controversy that takes up the rest of the week in American political news. The only times that his most controversial tweeting seems to be abated has been during the two extended international trips he has taken this year, and that’s likely due mostly to both the time difference between his location and the United States and his location and the fact that his schedule keeps him too busy to keep up with his daily habit of watching cable news and tweeting. When he doesn’t have those distractions, though, his Presidential tweeting resumes, just as it did this week when he returned from his Asian trip.
Before Trump’s Administration began, there was some speculation that people around him would be able to control his impulse to speak on social media without a filter. Principally, it was believed that his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner would be able to dissuade him from engaging in activities on social media that did nothing but harm the White House agenda. Then, it was believed that things would calm down when Trump’s wife Melania and son Barron joined him in Washington after Barron finished out the school year in New York. Finally, everyone seemed to think that things would calm down when John Kelly took over from Reince Priebus as Chief of Staff. The past ten months have shown that none of that is true, which means either that these people never really attempted to stop Trump from tweeting or they tried and weren’t successful. Whatever the explanation, Trump has continued to tweet without restriction, which are now cataloged in a constantly updated archive (CNN has one of its own here), and he shows no sign of stopping no matter what his aides try to do.