The hallowed ground that was home to a turning point in the Civil War could be the backdrop of a turning point in President Donald J. Trump’s re-election campaign.
That symbolism is likely why the president on Monday named Gettysburg National Military Park as one of two locations he’s considering for his Republican presidential nomination speech, according to Jeffrey Lord, a political analyst and Trump supporter who served as an associate political director in the Reagan White House.
“Presidents, in general, love their place in line,” Lord said. “They like to look back at great moments in history and see how their moment fits in.”
Trump has called himself a wartime president, fighting a novel coronavirus that he sees as the “invisible enemy.”
As the number of positive COVID-19 cases climbed past 5 million and more than 160,000 Americans died, Trump’s approval numbers dipped below 30 percent and Democratic challenger Joe Biden held as much as a 10-point lead over the president.
But as Trump resumed daily press briefings and publicly advocated for wearing masks, he’s been able to shave Biden’s polling lead. In Pennsylvania, where Biden was born and Trump went to college. That gap has narrowed to 5 points.
Trump’s latest play to win battleground Pennsylvania may be to lay out the vision for his second term from a historic battlefield.
More: Trump will be at Gettysburg or the White House to give his presidential nomination speech
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“It wouldn’t surprise me,” Lord said. “There’s two reasons to focus on Pennsylvania. It’s a key state, a battleground state. No question that plays a role in it. And Gettysburg is so terribly symbolic for multiple reasons.”
The Gettysburg battlefield is a pivotal part of American history and where former President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, calling on the nation for unity and a new birth of freedom.
“I think Trump’s speech will be a continuance of that history and talk about a rebirth of freedom,” Lord said. “We were a divided nation then. We’re a divided nation now. A speech in Gettysburg is a chance to lead forward.”
Trump also has a sentimental attachment to Pennsylvania, Lord said.
Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes in 2016 and became the first Republican presidential nominee to win the state since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
The president has made 37 visits to Pennsylvania since announcing his candidacy in the 2016 election. He visited the state 19 times as a Republican candidate, once as a president-elect and 16 times as a sitting president.
Some of his Pennsylvania visits have coincided with important dates in his candidacy and presidency.
In December, he held a campaign rally in Hershey as he was being impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. On that day, he said he would win Pennsylvania by a bigger margin than the last time.
More: At packed Hershey rally and facing impeachment, Trump says he’ll win re-election in 2020
In February, on the day he was acquitted by the U.S. Senate, Vice President Mike Pence visited Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, and shared his own prediction that Trump would again win this blue-collar state.
Trump on Monday said he’s been to Gettysburg numerous times.
His last official visit there was Oct. 22, 2016, when he made a campaign stop at the Eisenhower Hotel to lay out his plans for the first 100 days of his administration.
At the time, Trump was trailing Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton by 6 points.
He said he chose Gettysburg for that speech because it was a great place to remember military veterans.
On Monday, when he was asked why Gettysburg is on his list for the Republican presidential nomination speech slated for Aug. 27, he said it’s about the history.
“It’s a national park,” Trump said during a coronavirus press briefing. “It’s a national historic site. It’s incredible. You know, it’s the history. It’s incredible, actually, to me. It was a very important place, and is a very important place in our country. So we’re looking at that, and we’re looking at the White House.”
The White House would be the least expensive option, Trump said.
Both Gettysburg and the White House would be “really beautiful” options, the president said.
Gettysburg has also been a site of controversy for the last decade, with multiple pro- and anti-Confederate flag rallies and protests.
Gettysburg was also a site of recent clashes between Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter advocates.
More: Gettysburg filled with guns, political rhetoric on July 4th, but no Antifa or violence
Critics take issue with either site being used because they are federal properties, and using them for political purposes would violate the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act prevents all federal workers in the executive branch, except the president and vice president, from political activity.
While Trump and Pence would be immune to the law, the federal workers who travel with them would not be.
But there is precedent for other presidents using federal property for political purposes.
For example, when former President Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated for his fourth term in 1944, he was en route to Pearl Harbor to meet with military commanders. He had to give his speech at a San Diego Navy Yard. It was broadcast by radio from the federal property.
Wherever Trump chooses to deliver his nomination acceptance speech is unlikely to impact the outcome of the election, according to Terry Madonna, pollster and political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
“I don’t think the site is going to be a game changer,” Madonna said. “But he’s probably better off going to Gettysburg because it’s a location other than the White House and has symbolic importance to the union. But will it move a lot of voters? Probably not.”
If Trump does go there, he’s likely to draw comparisons to the Gettysburg Address and that moment in history, Madonna said.
“It would be unusual if he didn’t,” he said.
Lincoln delivered the famous speech November 19, 1863 in a cemetery for fallen Civil War soldiers, some four months after the Battle of Gettysburg. The battle has been described as the bloodiest and deadliest battle in the war and a turning point that helped the Union defeat the Confederacy.
As Trump continues to describe himself as a wartime president, some analysts think he will use Gettysburg as a place to try and heal a divided nation and fight for his re-election.
State Rep. Russ Diamond, a Republican from Lebanon County who supports Trump and has led the fight against wearing masks in Pennsylvania, said he has no concerns about the president giving a speech in Gettysburg and attracting a crowd.
Trump on Monday said there’s room for a crowd at both Gettysburg and the White House.
“I think it’s fantastic that the president is considering Gettysburg, and I have zero concerns about the virus spreading in a crowd,” Diamond said. “Gettysburg is a place of significance for all Americans. It’s where we turned the tide in the Civil War.”
But Diamond doesn’t agree with the comparisons between Trump and Lincoln or comparing the coronavirus to the Civil War.
“It’s not the same,” he said. “People were killing each other then. People are not killing each other in 2020.”
Beyond the historic value, there’s more significance to choosing a Pennsylvania site, Madonna said.
“Pennsylvania is one of the top six states to decide the president,” he said.
Biden had a 9-point lead in Pennsylvania, but has dropped in recent weeks to a 5-point lead, according to multiple polls.
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“Trump started to pay attention, and that’s been of some marginal help,” Madonna said. “He said to wear a mask. He said the virus was going to get worse. Coronavirus press conferences restarted. People think he’s taking it more seriously, which is working favorably for him.”
Two things will be better indicators of the president’s re-election potential than poll numbers or a campaign site, Madonna said.
“Where he gives a speech won’t matter much,” he said. “It comes down to the status of the coronavirus and the status of the economy. That will decide his re-election.”
Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.
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