Before departing for his Thanksgiving vacation last week, President Donald Trump teased a possible campaign visit for Roy Moore in Alabama. “I’ll be letting you know next week,” he said. Trump’s comments were noncommittal, but they were a marked shift from previous White House assurances that Trump wasn’t going. And Trump seemed to be hinting he’d actually have something newsworthy to say.
It wasn’t to be. The Associated Press is reporting that Trump won’t visit Alabama for Moore ahead of the Dec. 12 special election.
But this decision is weird for another reason entirely, and that’s the fact that Trump has already effectively endorsed Moore. In that same Q&A with reporters and then in some tweets over the weekend, Trump made it crystal clear that he supports Moore over Democrat Doug Jones. Trump has focused on Jones’s liberalism rather than saying nice things about Moore, sure, but he’s clearly saying he wants Moore to win.
His decision not to actually travel to Alabama for Moore, then, would seem to be a pretty rough commentary on Moore’s chances. Trump campaigned in person for Moore’s primary opponent, appointed Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., after all, and he did robo-calls for Ed Gillespie in the Virginia governor’s race. In the latter case, Gillespie seemed to want to associate with Trump’s policies, but not necessarily with the man himself.
In both cases, of course, the Trump-backed candidate lost. Which brings us to Moore. In effectively endorsing Moore, Trump is at risk of going 0-for-3 in the last three high-profile statewide races. Trump may want the credibility with the GOP base that comes with standing by Moore, but that decision also comes with a heaping dose of potential future embarrassment.
And that’s why not visiting Alabama is a curious decision. Trump is already distancing himself from the entire national GOP establishment by continuing to back Moore’s candidacy. It’s conspicuous, and it’s not as though he’ll be able to argue that he didn’t support Moore if Moore loses (try as he might).
Also, visiting Alabama, unlike Virginia, is a pretty easy call for Trump. This is a dark-red state - one that has loved Trump as much as or more than just about any state. And Moore could definitely use the assist, given that his poll numbers have been in decline since women have accused him of pursuing and even groping and assaulting them when they were teenagers. A Fox News poll a week and a half ago showed Moore trailing by eight points.
But those poll numbers’ decline also has to weigh on the White House’s decision. Trump may be tied to Moore thanks to the things he’s already said, but visiting in person and then seeing Moore lose in such a red state would be a devastating blow to Trump’s perceived ability to motivate the GOP base. While Trump has certainly bet something on Moore, visiting the state would be going all-in. And at this particular juncture, that would be a very risky bet.
Trump is extremely self-conscious about being perceived as a loser. He talks and tweets regularly about how well Republicans have done in special congressional elections this year. He tempered his support for Strange even while visiting Alabama to support him, saying, “I’ll be honest, I might have made a mistake.” And almost instantly upon Gillespie’s loss, Trump disowned him and accused Gillespie of not embracing him enough.
Moore, by contrast, has fully embraced Trump and would undoubtedly love for Trump to help him out of the hole he finds himself in. Trump also clearly supports Moore and has more than two full weeks to help out before the Dec. 12 special election.
In that context, Trump’s decision not to lend a hand in person speaks volumes, both about Moore’s chances and about Trump’s wayward quasi-endorsement of him. But it also doesn’t change the fact that backing two losing candidates in the same race and three in a row overall would be extremely embarrassing for Trump. And he seems to know it.
Aaron Blake is a Washington Post columnist.