WASHINGTON — In the last couple of weeks, President Trump repeatedly called his enemies “treasonous.” He threatened to punish Democrats by dumping migrants in their districts. He promoted a video tying a Muslim congresswoman to images of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
The message seems clear and so does the audience: more red meat for red-state Americans who have been the foundation of his political enterprise since his against-the-odds campaign for the White House. And it is a reminder that this president governs as none of his modern predecessors did.
The old-fashioned idea that a president, once reaching office, should at least pretend to be the leader of all the people these days seems so, well, old-fashioned. Mr. Trump does not bother with the pretense. He is speaking to his people, not the people. He has become, or so it often seems, the president of the United Base of America.
Mr. Trump travels nearly five times as often to states that were in his column in 2016 as to those that supported Hillary Clinton. He has given several times more interviews to Fox News than to all the other major networks combined. His social media advertising is aimed disproportionately at older Americans who were the superstructure of his victory in the Electoral College in 2016. His messaging is permeated with divisive language that galvanizes core supporters more than it persuades anyone on the fence, much less on the other side.
“Just from a pure governance standpoint, the ability to be president of a majority of the country, they don’t even to seem to consider that’s part of being president,” said Matthew Dowd, who was President George W. Bush’s re-election strategist and has been a vocal critic of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump is the only president in the history of Gallup polling never to earn the support of a majority of Americans even for a single day of his term. His approval rating in Gallup has stayed within a 10-point band of 35 percent to 45 percent throughout his presidency.
To some extent, that may reflect a time of polarization. Mr. Bush spent his entire second term under 50 percent approval and President Barack Obama spent nearly three years of his second term with less than a majority.
But Mr. Trump seems to relish divide-and-conquer politics much more than either of them did and has made little effort to expand his coalition beyond the voters who propelled him to the White House in the first place. While other presidents sought to broaden their public support, Mr. Trump appears to be heading into his re-election campaign sticking with his own tribe.
“Donald Trump has never adopted that presidential rhetoric,” said Nicole Hemmer, a University of Virginia professor who studies the conservative movement. “He’s always continued with the campaign rhetoric.”
Mr. Trump’s advisers, however, insist that is not the case, that while he is an unconventional politician with a howitzer Twitter account and an itchy trigger finger, he is still trying to reach out to new voters.
“The idea that we’re strictly preaching to the converted is not true,” said Tim Murtaugh, the communications director for Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign.
“We look at the 2016 map and we intend to win where the president won the last time and we also think that we can expand the map and attract new voters and new supporters in states across the country,” Mr. Murtaugh said. “There are two main differences this time between 2016 and 2020 — the first being that he’s now the incumbent president and the second is that he has a clear record of accomplishment that he can run on.”
Mr. Murtaugh cited the strong economy that has produced millions of jobs and increased wages as well as legislation like the overhaul of the criminal justice system. He also said voters across ideological lines agree with Mr. Trump’s argument on immigration that the law should be enforced.
“Democrats make a mistake where they can just shout the word immigration and think they win the argument with Hispanic voters,” he said. “We have found that legal immigrants, those who have followed the law to be Americans or those who have legal immigrants in recent generations close to themselves, believe that others should also follow the law.”
Mr. Trump’s path to victory in 2016 was an inside straight, winning the Electoral College even though he lost the national popular vote to Mrs. Clinton by nearly three million votes. Notwithstanding Mr. Trump’s advisers, Democrats and independent analysts said the president seemed to be gambling that he could win the same way again.
“They are doubling down on lightning striking the same place twice and the idea that this 46 percent president can once again through divide and conquer tactics win again,” said Cornell Belcher, a pollster who worked for Mr. Obama. “They’ve got to play the hand they are given and he doesn’t have a lot of other hands. He’s got to double down on this tribalism that got him there in the first place and hope they can do enough that Democrats cannot cobble together the majority that’s sitting out there and rejecting Trump.”
Indeed, Mr. Trump has spent much of his presidency focused on the parts of the country that already support him. Not counting four states where he regularly stays at his own properties or Maryland, where he travels to Joint Base Andrews or Camp David, he has spent nearly five times as many days in states that voted for him as those that did not, 115 versus 25, according to Bill Frischling of Factba.se, a service that compiles and analyzes data on Mr. Trump’s presidency. His campaign is spending 44 percent of its Facebook advertising budget targeting users 65 and older, far more proportionately than the Democrats, Axios reported.
Other Democrats said it was not clear whether Mr. Trump’s recent spate of divisive language reflected calculation. Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, said Mr. Trump might be lashing out more simply because he had fewer advisers around him to restrain him. At the same time, she said Mr. Trump is building a campaign that is far more extensive than the ad hoc organization he had last time.
“I don’t know if it’s any strategy so much as him being liberated,” she said. “He doesn’t seem to me, even though he’s wily and clever, like someone who’s thinking deeply about strategy for 2020. But it may not matter. My view is they’re building a whole apparatus outside the White House that’s gearing up for 2020.”
Other presidents have had to find a balance between being the leader of a nation and a partisan candidate for election, swinging from messages of unity to tough attacks on opponents. But the old theory about reaching out to swing voters to build a governing coalition, much less a re-election coalition, has been fading for years.
Bill Clinton positioned himself as a centrist in 1992 and 1996 to reach beyond the Democratic base and Mr. Bush in 2000 called himself a “compassionate conservative” to appeal to voters in the middle.
After he prevailed following the divisive Florida recount, Mr. Bush sought to reach out by working with Democrats on education and other issues. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he visited a mosque and made a point of stressing that the war that followed was not a war against Muslims. He likewise sought to expand his appeal to Hispanics by supporting an overhaul of immigration laws.
But after 2000, Mr. Dowd conducted a study for Mr. Bush concluding that most independents were really reliable Democratic or Republican voters and that the fraction of the electorate genuinely open to persuasion had shrunk since 1980 from 22 percent to 7 percent.
That led to a strategy in 2004 that emphasized maximizing Mr. Bush’s base, notably by supporting a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. But Mr. Dowd said they still tried to win over new voters. “We never thought we were choosing between one and the other,” he said.
The Trump team, by contrast, seemed to have “set a high-water mark of 46 percent,” banking on the idea that the president could lose the popular vote again but still hang onto the Electoral College. “They could do both but they seem to have decided they don’t care to do both,” Mr. Dowd said. “The only thing they want to do is motivate his base.”
Mr. Murtaugh said the president was actually expanding the president’s base. If he is not necessarily winning over opponents, he is bringing new voters into the process. A survey found that one-quarter of the people who turned out for a recent Trump rally in El Paso had voted only in one of the past four elections and another quarter had not voted in any of them, according to Mr. Murtaugh.
“These are new voters,” he said. “You might call them low-propensity voters; they don’t vote year in and year out. President Trump is not a typical politician by any means so a lot of these states that we talk about, they are not necessarily Republican states, they are Trump states.”