Sources told CNN that the President has been angry for days about the internal polls leaked to the media last week that showed him losing to Democrats, including Joe Biden, in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.
Trump’s campaign has publicly pushed back against data that it says is weeks old and doesn’t reflect the current situation, especially after the conclusion of the Mueller investigation.
But privately, a person familiar with the situation told CNN that the dismissals were less to do with the quality of the pollsters’ work than about pacifying the President.
Trump typically fulminates against polls that show him doing badly while cherry picking others, that however dubiously, appear to show him in a more favorable political position.
Going after Biden
But the latest campaign intrigue may offer a window into some of the uncertainties and potential weaknesses that surround Trump’s re-election campaign at the moment he plans to amp it up.
Any softening of the President’s popularity in the blue-collar Midwestern heartland would set warning signals flashing inside his camp — given his relatively narrow path to re-election.
Whomever comes out of the 20-plus field of Democrats to face the President will have to be prepared for a man who is adept at attacking his rivals, as evidenced during the 2016 campaign and throughout his presidency.
“He has recalibrated on everything,” Trump told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. “Everything he’s said he’s taken back two weeks later because he’s getting slammed by the left.”
Signs that Biden — the Democratic frontrunner — is a serious threat would further play on Trump’s mind on a topic over which he has spent considerable time agonizing, sources say.
The leaked polls could have a double electoral consequence in that they appear to bolster Biden’s central campaign argument that he is the Democrat most likely to dispatch Trump in 2020.
But more fundamentally, a candidate that cannot bear to learn the truth about his own campaign is not one who can be considered in a strong position on the eve of its formal launch, or who can easily make tactical adjustments all successful re-election bids require.
The campaign that never ended
Early state polling is not always predictive of how a race ends. And other first-term presidents have often looked more vulnerable than they turned out to be after months on the trail.
Incumbent presidents — especially those steering a strong economy like Trump — have historically had a clear advantage when seeking a second term in office.
And few politicians are as good at defining and eviscerating a campaign trail foe than Trump. So in many ways, the 2020 race will not begin until there is a Democratic nominee.
Yet the President cannot offer as an excuse for worrying poll numbers the usual incumbent’s argument that he has been so consumed with governing that he has had no time for politics.
In fact, his kickoff rally in Orlando on Tuesday night expected to feature an overflow crowd and include Vice President Mike Pence and first lady Melania Trump, may be the most superfluous campaign launch in US political history.
Not only did Trump never stop running after his staggering 2016 election win, he has devoted almost every day since to defending the legitimacy of his presidency and positioning for re-election.
Crafting his message
In thousands of tweets, scores of rallies, multiple speeches, and friendly TV interviews, Trump has celebrated his 2016 triumph and obsessively cultivated his political base.
He spent the weekend setting the tone for his re-election push, blasting Democrats, the Russia probe, the media, touting his border wall and warning of a national disaster if he loses.
In a tweet, the President boasted that the economy was setting records “and has a long way up to go…” typically augmenting reality in leveraging his best argument for re-election.
“If anyone but me takes over in 2020 (I know the competition very well), there will be a Market Crash the likes of which has not been seen before! KEEP AMERICA GREAT,” he wrote.
Trump has generally sought refuge in friendly interviews inside the conservative media machine in recent months. The ABC interview appeared to be an attempt to engage a wider audience. But the plan may have backfired because it delivered days of unflattering headlines for the President as individual excerpts were released.
Trump’s tweets offer a nutshell introduction to his re-election strategy that will likely be fleshed out on Tuesday: Make exaggerated claims for his own success, tear at cultural and social fault lines that helped him win power, and whip up anger against those he defines as political enemies.
His rhetoric in recent weeks also suggests Trump will make a case to Republicans who backed him in 2016 that he’s worked tirelessly to honor his campaign vows and proven to be a great deal maker — despite debatable evidence.
He will highlight the lowest unemployment rate in half a century, gutted government regulations, the travel ban his aides say kept Americans safe, the elimination of a key Obamacare mandate and increased defense spending by NATO members.
Rallying the base in the battleground states
Washington buzz about turmoil in his campaign polling machine is unlikely to penetrate the crowds drawn from Trump’s uber-loyal political base — especially in Florida where he racked up huge turnout in 2016, particularly in the northwestern panhandle area.
But the decision to begin there rather than in his midwestern bastion is a reminder that the Sunshine State will be vital if 2020 is even closer than 2016 should some of his heartland battlegrounds return to Democratic control.
Trump’s entire presidency so far has been a bet that the fiercely loyal grass roots voters who helped him win in 2016 will do so again against a Democrat not named Hillary Clinton.
The theory of Trump/Pence 2020, initiated in unusual campaign rallies during the presidential transition, has disdained broadening his base in favor of keeping voters who idolize him motivated and sufficiently angry to return to polling places in huge numbers.
The 17-month race to Election Day that Trump will preview in Florida on Tuesday night will test whether that strategy is a shrewd bet on a nation that is more polarized than in previous decades.
Or it could reveal that Trump’s tumultuous presidency did not just succeed in electrifying his base — but sparked a Democratic backlash that could ultimately send him home to New York.
That’s why the leaked polling data from inside Trump’s campaign — whether it reflects the current state of the race on the ground or not — could be an early danger sign for Trump in 2020.
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, Jeff Zeleny, Jeremy Diamond and Sarah Westwood contributed to this report.