WASHINGTON, D.C. — His back up against a wall, President Donald Trump has made a concerted effort in recent weeks to regain a coalition of white voters who can help him win the 2020 presidential election with a message finely calibrated to play on racial anxieties.
He has criticized NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag and defended statues commemorating Confederate leaders. He has attacked Black Lives Matter protesters for destroying “our heritage” and called their slogan a “symbol of hate.”
Preaching a “law and order” message that harks back to the turbulent 1960s, Trump is betting that a “silent majority” of voters who are unwilling to publicly admit their true feelings about the racial divide will rally to his candidacy at the secret ballot box.
It’s an approach that has bewildered most traditional political strategists.
“Everything that Trump says is too over-caffeinated for the people that he needs to win. It’s over-caffeinated, it’s overhyped, and it actually has the opposite effect on them,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz told McClatchy. “I don’t know who’s writing the speeches for him, but whoever it is has completely misunderstood the people they need to reach.”
Trump should shelve his “law and order” language, which is perceived as police assaulting protesters, and campaign on the issue of “public safety,” promising to make homes, neighborhoods and streets safe, Luntz said.
He should quit calling his supporters “warriors” and stop referring to them as the “silent majority” —they are terms that do not appeal to swing voters who think of themselves as “ignored or forgotten” and are looking for a better quality of life, he said.
“It is not too late, it can be rectified, but if he insists on using this language,” Luntz said of Trump, “the outcome will be very bad for him in November.”
Veterans of past campaigns also told McClatchy that Trump’s relentless personal focus on a racially charged set of issues doesn’t reach the voters he needs to win reelection and does little to stop a weeks-long polling slide that has positioned him as a clear-cut underdog to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden four months from the election.
That’s true even of the many white working-class voters who formed an important part of the president’s base during his winning 2016 campaign. A Gallup poll released Monday found that just 38% of Americans approved of the president’s job performance in June, well below the more than 46% who voted for Trump during the 2016 presidential election.
A New York Times/Siena College survey released last month found Trump with just a 19-point edge among white voters without a college degree, a healthy advantage but far from the 27-point margin he won those voters by during the 2016 presidential race, according to exit polls.
“Some of that messaging may work for a fraction of his base, and to the extent that needs an energized base, it could be helpful,” said Alex Conant, a veteran GOP strategist. “But he won in 2016 by having strong base turnout and winning independents and more traditional conservatives who are very turned off by that messaging,” he said.
“We’re a long way from talking about judges and taxes and things that center-right swing voters care about,” Conant added.
Some of those voters have soured on the president recently because of his response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Luntz said that he has found that Trump’s constant talk about reopening the economy is not being well received. People want to return to their regular lives, but they are still afraid of the virus, he said. Trump should be making his pitch more personal instead of nationalizing it, he added.
“Trump is frightening them by going too far,” Luntz said. “They really want communities to treat everyone with fairness. They really want justice for everybody. They’re not just concerned about themselves.”
Trump’s retweet last week of a video of one of his supporters shouting “white power” at a group of protesters has led to renewed claims that the Republican president is seeking to appeal to a subset of white voters who can boost his reelection prospects. The president deleted the tweet after an outcry, but he did not apologize or denounce the phrase.
The tweet was but one brush with inflammatory rhetoric that Trump has used in the past few weeks after repeatedly calling the coronavirus the “Kung flu” and claiming that individuals taking part in the Black Lives Matter protests are “maybe” not even from this country.
“It’s not just a single statement in isolation. It’s the comments about ‘silent majority,’ honestly the ads around all things China,” David Jolly, a former Republican congressman who represented Florida, said. “It is tapping into a xenophobia that is exciting this cultural response that he’s playing to.”
Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Biden, has charged that the Trump comments are not accidental. She tweeted amid the “white power” video episode, “Let’s stop asking if this president knows what he is doing with all the dog whistles Ok?”
Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee and the Trump Victory Committee the RNC operates jointly with the president’s campaign, said the dog whistle allegation was “beyond absurd” and Biden’s campaign is taking “desperate” swings because it has “no infrastructure, no message, no energy.”
“We have the staff in the field, we have the message, we have the record of results, we know what we want to accomplish. Everything’s going our way when it comes to the fundamentals of the campaign and we like where we’re at,” Gorka said.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany argued last week that Trump’s deletion of the “white power” video was a denunciation of the inherently racist chant at the center of the controversy.
“He deleted it. The deletion speaks for itself. His repeated condemnations of hate speak for themselves. And this is a president who has repeatedly condemned hate and repeatedly encouraged for us all to come together,” McEnany said at a press briefing.
But Trump has made a defense of the Confederate legacy a hallmark of his pursuits in office. He is threatening to veto the National Defense Authorization Act if it includes provisions to rename military bases named after Confederate military leaders and has signed an executive order dictating that demonstrators who desecrate monuments be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
In 2017, he insisted that a group of white supremacists rallying to protect a statue of General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, were “very fine people,” comments that angered even some fellow Republicans at the time.
Sen. Tim Kaine, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, said that Trump is “just saying what he believes” and that is why Trump doesn’t consider his defense of Confederate statues to be problematic.
“We’ve got scar tissue in Virginia. We know what was the legacy of the Civil War, what was the legacy of slavery —it’s all bad —so a guy like him, who seems to want to glorify it, it’s ignorant,” Kaine said. “The notion that the Civil War is some great lost cause, the president believes that, and no serious person believes that.”
John Weaver, a former longtime senior adviser to the late Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain, in more pointed criticism, said that Trump was engaging in “overt racism” to try to win over white suburban voters that polls have consistently shown him losing.
“Trump’s overt racism is pushing suburban voters away from him, along with his general COVID-related incompetence,” Weaver, a founder of the anti-Trump political action committee The Lincoln Project, said.
Can he win them back?
Trump’s support in polls of head-to-head matchups with Biden has slipped precipitously over the last month. Many national surveys show him now trailing the former vice president by 10 points or more, while battleground state polls in places like Wisconsin and Michigan show a similarly pessimistic outlook for the president.
And although the president’s long-standing vulnerabilities with many moderate, suburban, female voters have worsened during this time, he’s also suffered losses with former supporters. A Monmouth University poll released last week found that swing counties nationwide—those counties where Trump or Hillary Clinton won only by single digits during the 2016 presidential election—Biden now holds a commanding 14-point edge, 55% to 41%.
Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and a political ally of the president, said that allegations of racism are being thrown around too cavalierly and Trump supporters “grow silent” and refuse to answer media and pollster questions authentically as a result.
“You will not appropriately understand where the American people stand on this presidential campaign until Election Day. It’s going to make the silent majority of 2016 look like a tiny faction compared to what’s going to happen in 2020,” he said. “People have simply tuned out this idea that having a contrary viewpoint to Black Lives Matter and these other radical groups is something that will be received with any respect at all.”
Although Trump’s own words and actions are the most important messages for his reelection effort, his campaign in recent weeks —through its TV ads —has taken a different approach.
Instead of focusing on statues or the Black Lives Matter protests, it has castigated Biden as a longtime member of the Washington establishment that for decades has failed to fix any of the country’s problems while also questioning his mental fitness for office. It has also criticized proposals, embraced by some on the left, to reduce funding to local police departments.
Gorka said the campaign and the RNC are assessing each state and the voters that are in that state as they make their calculations for victory. He said that the campaign operation is a “lot more strategic and nuanced” than one demographic or another and disputed public polls as “wrong” that show Trump in a deep hole with white working-class voters.
“Our strategy hasn’t shifted. It may not seem as the sexiest thing, but we’re focused on that ground game, and the process stays the same. It’s about identifying and persuading voters and creating that contrast between what Donald Trump has done and will do for this country and what Joe Biden will do” he said.
Neither Trump nor the campaign has focused on a sustained defense of his handling of the pandemic. Weaver said that Trump’s polling with suburban voters would likely improve if he took the global health crisis more seriously.
“He should, but is incapable, deal with COVID-19 as the crisis it is and develop and show discipline about a plan to get it under control and the economy moving. But since he has the attention span of a gnat on moonshine, that isn’t going to happen,” Weaver said.
Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican from Florida, predicted Trump’s tactics would win him reelection.
“I think the election will be about who cares about law enforcement. Clearly the Democrats don’t. Who cares about holding China accountable? Democrats don’t. Who cares about capitalism? Democrats are all in for socialism now. I think Trump’s going to have a big win,” he said.
Jolly said that Trump’s law-and-order message is a substitute for the conversation on race that the president should be leading. He doesn’t have the “credibility” to talk about race and so he’s using language that is “culturally toxic” in some parts of the country.
Trump’s populist message is “incredibly effective across rural America,” he said. But the president may have permanently lost 3-4% of voters in states like Pennsylvania that have traditionally voted for Democrats and will decide the election, Jolly warned.
“Division is a powerful element in politics. It’s just not one that gets you to 51% all of the time.”