President Donald Trump has reset his approach to the coronavirus pandemic in a bid to revive sinking poll numbers, but with 100 days until the election his campaign may need more than a change in tone to reverse its slide.
Trump trails Democrat Joe Biden nationally and in key swing states by wide margins, grappling with a health crisis that’s killed over 146,000 Americans, tipped the economy into recession, and stymied both his administration and Republicans in Congress. Election day is Nov. 3.
The woes extended to the entire Republican Party, which just ended a bruising week of feuds over what their next aid package should look like, and on other matters as well.
To cap it all off, Trump canceled the Republican National Convention set for Jacksonville, Florida, weeks after shifting most of the meeting, including his acceptance speech, from North Carolina with great fanfare. While some expressed relief at avoiding what could have become a COVID-19 super-spreader event, it robbed Republicans of a showcase of party unity and an infomercial for a second Trump term.
Yoho and AOC
Trump also wasn’t getting much help from Republicans in Congress. Representative Ted Yoho of Florida, who retires at the end of his term, called Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez an obscene and sexist name in earshot of a reporter, and has waffled in apologizing. Trump and his allies also attacked Representative Liz Cheney, the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress, for occasionally criticizing him. Both eruptions come as suburban women are already breaking from the GOP.
“There are red flags everywhere” for Trump, said polling analyst Tim Malloy of Quinnipiac University, which published two polls last week showing Biden with a wide lead in Florida and tied with Trump in Texas, two states Trump must win. Trump narrowly won Florida in 2016 but won Texas by a nine-point margin. “There is nothing in the most recent polling, nationally or in the states, that has a sort of hidden window of solace or escape for him. There is nothing there,” Malloy said.
However, Trump’s base remains as loyal as ever, and could deliver another Electoral College win if votes are cast in the right places, particularly if turnout sags or if Biden stumbles in any eventual campaign trail emergence.
Malloy said Trump has always polled poorly on questions of empathy, and that it’s gotten worse. His one advantage was always the economy, which has also dried up. It’s not clear how often Trump will hold his briefings as he looks to retake the agenda. Even then, it may not matter.
“There’s a veneer there of being presidential,” said Daniel Mallinson, a political scientist at Penn State University in Harrisburg. “But he’s still tweeting, he’s still Donald Trump. So, I don’t know how many people that will swing -- if they’re unhappy and opposed to the president, will that be enough to bring those folks back?”
In a new approach, Trump suddenly warned last week that the pandemic will probably get worse before it gets better, but continues to tout stockpiles of supplies and blame China for Covid-19’s spread. Just a week ago, Trump said that “eventually” the virus would disappear.
Persistent coronavirus cases are threatening the rebound of an economy that was Trump’s core argument for re-election and is poised to define the final sprint to November’s ballot.
Trump this month also changed his campaign manager and started holding online “rallies” on Facebook as most in-person events are off. On Friday, he unveiled new measures aimed at lowering certain drug costs at an event with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a possible acknowledgment of the pair’s waning popularity. Even those measures were long debated within the West Wing.
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But while Trump appears newly seized with the need to act, his prescriptions remain largely the same. He’s pushing to reopen schools against the wishes of many parents and teachers, is ramping up his “law and order” message, and is opposed to the removal of Confederate names from military bases.
Meanwhile, Gallup found 73 per cent of Americans think the pandemic is getting worse, the highest share since it began tracking the issue in April. An Associated Press-National Opinion Research Center poll on Friday showed that a majority of those who have lost their jobs don’t believe the work will ever return. And a Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed a majority think stress about the pandemic is hurting their mental health.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had hoped to quickly wrap up a US$1 trillion GOP stimulus bill with the White House and present a united front to Democrats, but days of internal squabbling have hamstrung progress even as deadlines to stop evictions and extend extra unemployment benefits passed. A final deal could be weeks away, McConnell said Friday.
Voters are taking note of Congress, too. The Cook Political Report this week said that Democrats are now favored to take the Senate; several Republican incumbents are vulnerable.
“It’s going to be very difficult for Trump if he signs a bad bill with Pelosi that is not supported by Republicans,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative economist and informal Trump adviser, referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. If the final bill omits a payroll tax cut but adds new spending, “you’re going to see a very divided Republican Party and a lot of conservative opposition to that bill. And that’s not a good look for the party as we go into the November elections.”
Outwardly, Trump is trying to be optimistic.
'It’s a Downer'
“We were doing great, we were sailing, George Washington would have had a hard time beating us, and then when the China virus came in, all of the sudden, you know, it’s a dampener, it really is, it’s a downer,” the president told Barstool Sports in an interview published Friday. Even so, “the polls are starting to really shape up,” he said.
New campaign manager Bill Stepien said opinion surveys overstated Trump’s lead before the virus and are overstate Biden’s lead now.
“A lot of pollsters are focused on hitting ‘send’ on press releases and more focused on that than assuring their readers that their polls are accurate,” Stepien said.
Republicans have regularly touted an enthusiasm gap between potential Trump and Biden voters. Campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley said Friday that Trump voters would “crawl across broken glass” for him.
“The Trump Campaign has more ENTHUSIASM, according to many, than any campaign in the history of our great Country,” Trump tweeted on Sunday.
The polling margin between the two is expected to narrow as pollsters shift from modeling registered voters to likely voters, who tend to skew more Republican, said Michael Traugott, a professor at the University of Michigan.
“Historically, he’s in a little deeper hole than average. There is time to turn it around, though the turnaround is not entirely within his control,” he said. Most incumbents have steadfastly sought to expand their base, but not Trump. “He’s focused entirely on his base and maintaining his base,” Traugott said. “He’s very unusual for an incumbent.”
--With assistance from Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou and Steven T. Dennis.