On The Trail: Crisis response puts Trump on defense, even in red states

A presidential election taking place against the backdrop of three historic and converging crises has put President Trump in further electoral jeopardy when voters go to the polls in five months.

Republicans are increasingly concerned that the president’s responses to the raging coronavirus pandemic, an economic downturn of unprecedented proportions and protests over systemic racism have damaged his standing with key groups essential to his reelection.

Republican strategists also fret that Trump’s botched responses may drag the rest of the party down with him.

The conversations with more than a dozen party leaders, strategists and former Trump officials came as a new round of polls show Trump trailing in critical battleground states — and even in states his team once counted as solidly in his column.

The surveys show more Americans trust former Vice President Joe Biden to handle the coronavirus pandemic, health care and race relations than Trump. More people trust Trump on the economy, but the U.S. is already in a recession that may become a depression.

The polls also show a more ominous trend for the president: His numbers are slipping among key voting blocs — especially older voters, who fear the coronavirus, and suburban voters and independents disgusted by images of police violence or swayed by thought leaders like former Defense Secretary James Mattis.

“Trump’s problems are obvious — he’s trailing badly in national and state polls, and has lost support among key voting segments, including seniors and independents,” said Alex Conant, a veteran of Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign. “There’s a growing realization that Democrats could win big in November if current trends continue.”

Polls conducted in the last 10 days for outlets including Fox News and CNBC show Biden leading in critical battleground states like Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona. A Fox News poll even showed Biden leading Trump by a slim 2 points in Ohio, a state that has trended steadily Republican in recent years.

In the midst of those bad numbers, Trump met with senior campaign aides, including campaign manager Brad Parscale and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, at the White House on Thursday, a Trump campaign official said. 

One ray of good news for the president came in a CNBC survey, which showed Trump holding onto a 4-point lead in Pennsylvania. But the surveys showed tight races in Texas, where Trump leads by a hair, and in much more conservative states like Missouri and Utah.

Based on those polls, if the election were held today and other states voted the way they had in 2016, Biden would win 306 electoral votes with only North Carolina and Arizona, where recent polls have showed divergent results, up for grabs. That would represent a comfortable victory by recent historical standards.

But these times — and Trump himself — seem to defy history. That gives some Republicans hope that the five months to go before Election Day will provide some other plot twist that causes voters to give Trump another look.

“I think the fact that we are in such unprecedented and unpredictable times means the normal rules simply are not applicable,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a pollster before he got into electoral politics himself and the former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). “I have always thought that the election would be close, divisive and hard fought. I still do. Trump’s base is intact and intense. They will be voting. That is a bit less certain on the Democratic side, but increasingly likely.”

Moments of crisis can define a presidency, for better or worse. George W. Bush’s popularity surged after he grabbed a bullhorn on a pile of twisted rubble after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. It melted away after his administration botched the response to Hurricane Katrina. For Barack Obama, the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden gave the nation a chance to rally around the president.

But Trump has not capitalized on the chance to broaden his appeal by bringing together a fractured nation. He has cast blame and sown doubt even as the coronavirus has killed more than 100,000 of his constituents. He has urged governors to reopen their economies even as Americans tell pollsters they still feel fear over the virus. And instead of showing empathy toward minorities who fear police brutality and systemic racism, he has projected what the administration believes is a strong man’s resolve.

“Each time he’s had a chance to be a leader, he’s just played a very polarizing role. As a Republican, it’s just sad that we have such a flawed leader,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman who also headed the NRCC. “Trump doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt, because the vast middle doesn’t trust him.”

Some current and former Trump campaign officials say Trump is only now grasping how difficult it may be for him to stage a comeback. One former aide likened the campaign to the Titanic — only those on the Titanic, the aide said, acknowledged they were sinking.

The concern over Trump’s standing bleeds into other races where Republicans are in danger of losing seats. The path back to a majority in the House of Representatives seems to have narrowed almost to the point of invisibility. The firewall Republicans are building to protect their Senate majority is in danger of extinction, too, as well-funded Democratic challengers in states like Montana, Iowa and Georgia broaden the battlefield.

Republicans say they believe many of their incumbent senators can run ahead of Trump’s margins, which may be narrow in battleground states that also feature Senate contests. But if Trump does sink, Republicans have tied themselves so closely to the president whose power they fear that he threatens to become their albatross.

“There’s no reason to think Republican Senate candidates couldn’t outperform Trump again,” Conant said. “The challenge is that Republicans are playing defense in a lot of states, against challengers who are raising a lot of money. If the top of the ticket badly underperforms, that definitely creates headwinds for Senate candidates.”

At the heart of Trump’s path to a comeback lies Biden, and the Trump campaign’s forthcoming effort to drag the former vice president down. Thursday’s White House meeting focused on how the campaign will seek to define Biden before the Democratic nominee-in-waiting can define himself.

“When Joe Biden is defined, the president runs very strong against him,” the campaign official told The Hill.

That effort is beginning, albeit in areas the Trump campaign may have hoped would be safely in their pocket. The campaign has already begun spending money on television in media markets in Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio and Iowa, four states on the periphery of the 2016 battleground map.

“What Trump’s got to do is get people who don’t like him to vote for him, like he did last time,” Davis said. “Democrats are in a good spot to take everything, but unfortunately for them what they’re going to inherit is a mess and a big deficit.”

Cole said the convergent crises underscore the unpredictability of an election taking place against an historic backdrop. 

“In most years at least one and sometimes both campaigns can shape events,” Cole said. “Not this year. Both campaigns will be shaped by events they cannot control. The winner will be the luckiest candidate, not the best.”

Brett Samuels contributed reporting.

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.

Tags Arizona Barack Obama Brad Parscale Coronavirus Donald Trump George Floyd protests Joe Biden Marco Rubio Michigan Pennsylvania presidential election Ronna McDaniel Tom Cole Unemployment Wisconsin
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