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Trump Set To Officially Launch Reelection Bid, But Hasn't He Been Running All Along?

President Trump will officially kick off his 2020 reelection campaign with a rally in Florida on Tuesday night. But in reality, he has been running for a second term ever since he took office.

The former reality TV star and real estate mogul — the first president without prior political or military experience — used an unorthodox campaign style to notch an upset win in 2016, with massive rallies to excite supporters. And he's employed that same strategy, with a heavily blurred line between official duties and trying to sell his agenda muddled with outright politicking, since taking office.

In fact, Trump filed his official paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Jan. 20, 2017 — mere hours after he was inaugurated. And less than a month later, he would hold a rally (also in Florida) that was paid for by his campaign committee. When asked by a reporter if this was too early in his presidency to hold such an event, Trump replied, "Life is a campaign." As president-elect, he also launched a "victory tour" of sorts to battleground states.

So while the Trump campaign may bill this as the official start of the president's bid for a second term, it's truly anything but. Since 2017, Trump has held more than 60 rallies. Nearly three-quarters of those occurred during 2018, where he was often stumping for down-ballot candidates in the midterm elections.

Perhaps more than any other president in recent history, Trump relished in such an extensive campaign travel schedule. And while it's certainly nothing new for commanders in chief to stump for members of their own party during the midterm elections, Trump's approach was very different.

Ultimately, such rallies really felt more like a vehicle to promote Trump — with his own "Make America Great Again" branding, unwieldy bravado and raucous atmosphere, and usually a brief recognition of the candidate he was there to support. He also unveiled another "Keep America Great" slogan just more than a year into his first term.

If tonight's rally is seen as Trump's true "official" launch, it's about on par timing-wise with when President Bill Clinton started angling for a second term. It was in late June of 1995 that Clinton held a fundraiser for his reelection coffers (Trump would do that for the first time back in June 2017, less than six months after his inauguration) alongside first lady Hillary Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper. The media billed it as his effective launch. But as The New York Times noted in a May 1996 story, there had long been a "shadow campaign" within the White House, trying to use the "rhetorical, ceremonial and majestic possibilities of incumbency" to help boost him, even "forsak[ing] the traditional formal announcement of his candidacy."

Clinton, a gifted orator, also thrived on the stump and in retail politics environments. He traveled extensively ahead of the 1994 midterms (which also saw the House of Representatives flip parties, along with the Senate) and was energized by political events. And like other presidents, including President Barack Obama, often official events to tout job announcements or policy rollouts would not-so-coincidentlybe held in swing states, with executive branch functions having something of a campaign feel.

While Obama officially announced his bid for reelection in April 2011 with a video and a fundraising swing, he wouldn't hold official campaign rallies until May 2012, well after it was clear that Mitt Romney would be the GOP nominee. But Obama had long been holding official events in swing states that would serve as the foundation for his ultimately successful reelection bid, along with a massive digital infrastructure.

President George W. Bush filed for reelection shortly after his first midterm elections. He wouldn't hold a rally to officially kick off his bid for a second term until March 2004, when it also was assumed that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry would be the Democratic nominee. Bush also chose Florida for the site of that rally — the state that gave him enough electoral votes to win in 2000 after a protracted and controversial recount that ended with a decision from the Supreme Court.

Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan both waited even later to formally transition into reelection mode. The elder Bush didn't even file for reelection until October 1991 and held his first official campaign fundraiser later that month. Reagan waited longer, not filing with the FEC until October 1983 and kicking off his run at a second term — which he had wavered on even seeking— until late January 1984, with a televised Oval Office address paid for by his campaign and a "Spirit of America" rally in Atlanta.

Trump's campaign asserts tonight's Orlando rally will, indeed, be different from other campaign-style rallies that preceded it. This event comes almost exactly four years since he made his initial campaign launch, riding down the golden escalator of Trump Tower, as he often likes to reminisce about in speeches and at rallies.

First lady Melania Trump, Vice President Pence and second lady Karen Pence will all be there, which is not typical of previous events. The Trump children will also be in attendance, though several of the president's kids, especially Don Jr., are often featured warmup speakers at Trump rallies. That full cast makes it seem like they're trying to give off more of a convention feel at the official kickoff rally, with the actual Republican National Convention scheduled for August 2020 in Charlotte, N.C.

The location of this rally isn't by accident, either. This will be Trump's seventh rally in Florida since taking office — the most of any state. The site of his first post-campaign stop on Feb. 18, 2017, was Melbourne, and he held a rally just last month in Panama City. He also visited the state four times in the run-up to the 2018 midterms, where two close allies, Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis, won their Senate and gubernatorial races, respectively, in very close elections — one of the few bright spots for Republicans amid a mostly bruising midterm cycle.

Of course, Trump desperately needs to keep Florida's 29 electoral votes in his column come 2020, after eking out a win of just over 1 percentage point in 2016.

The state he's stumped in second-most is Pennsylvania, whose 20 electoral votes he will also need to keep in his column to win reelection. Losing both those states combined would virtually guarantee a loss.

Even before the midterms push began, though, Trump was holding rallies in deep red areas, such as Kentucky and Tennessee. Unlike his 2016 bid, Trump's reelection efforts are more professionalized and organized, so more of a focus on simply swing areas he has to win or keep in his column would be expected.

But if Trump has already been campaigning his entire first term for a second one, don't expect him to slow down over the coming months, especially as he's eager to shift attention away from the Democratic field and onto himself.

"When the rally schedule picks up, it will be unmistakable," a Trump campaign official said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 18, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
A graphic on this story previously stated incorrectly that Bill Clinton filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission 1,356 days before his reelection. His statement of candidacy was filed on April 14, 1995, 571 days before Election Day 1996.
Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.