Trump struggles to stay on script, frustrating GOP again
President Trump is struggling to stick to a consistent message that resonates with voters, vacillating almost daily between scripted events and remarks and incendiary commentary that risks alienating key voting blocs in an election year.
The whiplash was on full display this week, as Trump made a series of trips to underscore his administration’s focus on the coronavirus pandemic and economy.
Trump traveled to North Carolina on Monday for an extremely brief, targeted event to tout progress on a COVID-19 vaccine. On Wednesday, he was in Texas to sign permits boosting oil exports, and on Thursday he stopped by the Red Cross to urge Americans who recovered from the coronavirus to donate convalescent plasma.
But efforts to keep the focus on those events were quickly undone by the president’s claims that low-income housing developments that largely benefit minorities would “destroy” the suburbs, his retweet of a fringe doctor who supports the use of a controversial antimalarial drug to treat COVID-19 and his suggestion that Election Day be delayed.
The president trails presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in national and key swing state polls, particularly among suburban voters who contributed to his victory in 2016, worrying some Republicans who see Trump’s unscripted remarks as increasingly hurting him.
“He’s never going to change,” said one Republican operative who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “The most important thing is the state of the economy, the state of COVID and all things health … and in terms of his messaging, the only thing that matters is his messaging over the last 30 days.”
It’s clear that White House political strategists are considering such criticism.
The White House in mid-July shifted its messaging strategy around the coronavirus pandemic as Trump’s approval ratings on the crisis declined and his deficit to Biden in national polls grew.
In the last two weeks, Trump has resumed regular briefings on the coronavirus, and held events meant to highlight the administration’s response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 150,000 Americans.
In a contrast to past briefings that were free-wheeling and often went on for more than an hour, the events of the past few weeks have lasted less than 30 minutes, been more focused and featured fewer questions from the media.
Administration officials praised Trump’s restraint, pointing to small victories in getting the president to tweet that wearing a mask is “patriotic” and focusing on vaccine development.
But this week, the unscripted Trump started showing up again more often.
Trump wrote a series of late night tweets Monday criticizing Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert. He also spread unproven claims about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that Trump has latched onto as a potential treatment for COVID-19 despite limited success.
Trump’s official events at the Red Cross and in Florida were overshadowed by his tweet musing about delaying the November election, something he does not have the power to do but that set off alarm bells among Democrats who fear the president will cast doubt on the result.
Unpredictability has been a staple of Trump’s time in office, frustrating Republicans who are hoping for a more disciplined closing stretch of the 2020 campaign.
“We had the economy contract by 32 percent, and Republicans and Democrats were unable to have any baseline agreement on an unemployment extension let alone a financial relief package, and his tweet about changing the election date dominated the headlines all day,” said Ryan Costello, a former Republican congressman who retired before the 2018 election.
“And I would expect more of that, and if I were a House Republican I would not for a second think that I could lay out a campaign narrative and be able to execute on it without weekly, if not daily, disruptions based on whatever Trump says or does,” he added.
Polls show Trump trailing Biden by healthy margins nationally. While the race is much closer in such swing states as Arizona, Florida and North Carolina, the general trajectory has unnerved the GOP.
Strategists and those close to the campaign acknowledge the race will be heavily influenced by the state of the economy and the pandemic, and Republicans are worried about the president’s eroding support with suburban voters.
A New York Times-Siena College poll in June found Trump trailing Biden by 16 percentage points in suburban areas, with 59 percent of suburban voters disapproving of his job performance.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll released earlier this month showed Biden leading Trump 52 percent to 43 percent among suburban voters.
People close to the Trump campaign and the president believe his messaging on law and order and condemnation of protesters can still be effective, particularly if Biden is pulled to the far left of his party.
“Particularly for the demographic Donald Trump needs to be targeting, which is suburban women, our data shows love the law and order message,” said one outside adviser to the president. “They want family safety and security above all else.”
Trump has shown he is disinclined to a dramatic shift in tactics to court those voters, shaping his pitch to the suburbs around stoking fear with a law and order message and warnings that a Biden administration would support low-income housing developments that would lead to a rise in crime in suburbia.
“They want to abolish and really hurt the suburbs because under their plan … they don’t mind if low income housing is built in a neighborhood, in a beautiful suburb of Iowa, but a beautiful suburb anywhere in the country,” Trump said in a tele-rally earlier this week.
That type of rhetoric may backfire, some Republicans warned, given suburban parts of the country are growing increasingly diverse.
“There is no homogenous vanilla unifying set of issues,” said Costello, who represented a suburban Pennsylvania district. “There’s a hell of a lot of diversity in the suburbs just like there is across the country.”