On The Trail: Trump tests the limits of contrarian politics
President Trump is testing James Carville’s old maxim that voters care most about the economy and their pocketbooks in the midst of twin crises that have put the president well behind his Democratic rival less than five months before Election Day.
While voters still say they believe Trump would handle the economy better than former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, voters pick Biden to handle virtually every other major issue that concerns them — from race relations to the coronavirus pandemic to health care, gun control and climate change.
As the nation’s attention has been focused on the protests over the killing of George Floyd and a virus that has taken more than 110,000 lives in the U.S., Trump has reverted to his instincts more than ever. But now, those instincts — to stand with his base, to attack constantly, to amplify conspiracy theories — have put him on the wrong side of public opinion.
As a first-time politician, Trump captured the zeitgeist of 2016, both among Republican primary voters who despised their own party and among a broader swath of independents who saw a chance to take out their anger on Washington’s political elites.
Now, he is remarkably out of step.
“It is difficult to think of another example where, on the major issues of the day, a president is unresponsive to public opinion,” said Robert Griffin, the research director at the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group. “Most of the time, politicians are pretty responsive to these things, at least on a face level.”
Amid nationwide protests against police brutality, more Americans say race relations are important to their vote, and two-thirds say the criminal justice system favors whites over blacks — including 63 percent of white Americans, according to a CNN poll released over the weekend.
The same survey found that a whopping 84 percent said peaceful protests were justified, and 60 percent said deploying the U.S. military to control the protests — an unprecedented step Trump sought to take — was inappropriate.
Trump, who has long venerated law enforcement and the military, has avoided all but the most cursory acknowledgements of Floyd’s death. He has yet to offer any kind of call for racial reconciliation or police reforms.
“They’ve enforced the laws. They’ve done a fantastic job of it. We have among the best numbers we’ve ever had in terms of recorded history, certainly. But this has been a very strong year for less crime,” Trump said at a roundtable with law enforcement officers on Monday. “Sometimes you’ll see some horrible things, like we witnessed recently. But 99 — I say 99.9, but let’s go with 99 percent of them are great, great people.”
The president’s remarks contrast with what many Americans see as a serious problem with the U.S. criminal justice system. He followed those up with a bizarre conspiracy theory the next day that a 75-year-old Buffalo, N.Y., man shoved to the ground by police might have been trying to jam police communications equipment. The man, Martin Gugino, remains in the hospital. “Could be a set up?” Trump tweeted.
Almost 70 percent of Americans say Floyd’s death was indicative of a broader problem in the treatment of black Americans by police, according to a poll conducted by George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government for The Washington Post. That is a sea change from 2014, when 51 percent said the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner on Staten Island were isolated incidents.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 59 percent of Americans said they were more concerned by the actions police took in the last minutes of Floyd’s life. Just 27 percent, including only 30 percent of white voters, said they were more concerned that the protests had turned violent.
Griffin’s research has found that a majority of Americans still view the police favorably. But the percentage has been falling in recent weeks, and the share of white Americans who hold that favorable view fell from 72 percent two weeks ago to 61 percent last week, according to Nationscape Insights, a co-project of the Democracy Fund, UCLA and USA Today. Thirty-one percent of whites have an unfavorable view, up 13 points in a week — an unprecedented shift in public opinion.
“These are things around which people have long standing, relatively deeply held views,” Griffin said. “To see a change like that in one week speaks to the moment we’re in, these protests, both in their scope and the breadth of them.”
The coronavirus raging across the country has also put Trump at odds with his constituents. Eager to get the economy jumpstarted before November, Trump has pushed governors and local officials to allow regular business to resume.
“We’re opening and we’re opening with a bang,” Trump said Friday, celebrating jobs numbers that showed millions of Americans had gone back to work in May.
But just 37 percent of voters told CBS News pollsters that the top priority of the country should be getting back to work to revive the economy, while 63 percent said they prioritized staying home and slowing the spread of the virus. Fifty-seven percent said states that reopen their economies would make the outbreak worse.
The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 51 percent of Americans believe Trump is too focused on the economy and not focused enough on keeping people safe. Only 42 percent believed he is striking the right balance. Two-thirds say they would be uncomfortable flying on a plane or attending a big gathering, and about half of parents with school-age children said they would be uncomfortable sending their kids back to school in August.
“Most people continue to think this is not safe,” Griffin said.
Trump has found himself on the wrong side of public opinion before. His administration is still engaged in a lawsuit challenging the validity of the Affordable Care Act, a law that a majority of voters support. Trump denies the dangers of climate change, even as more voters say it is one of their top priorities. And he has resisted calls to implement more stringent gun control laws, though a huge majority of Americans back both specific measures and the concept more broadly.
The common thread between issues on which Trump sides against the majority of public opinion is that he stands with those who have been most loyal to him. Trump has long seen law enforcement and the military vote as crucial blocs of support. He needs a strong economy to persuade voters who might not otherwise approve of his Twitter-heavy style. He has been a champion of the oil and gas industry, and the most significant beneficiary of campaign spending by the National Rifle Association.
But now, being on the wrong side of major issues appears to carry a political cost for Trump. Just 31 percent approve of Trump’s handling of race relations, the CNN poll found, and 65 percent said his response to the protests had done more harm than good. Just 45 percent said he has done a good job handling the coronavirus outbreak, the CBS poll found.
Among the two-thirds who said race relations would be extremely or very important to their vote this year, Biden leads by a 63 percent to 31 percent margin. Among the 54 percent who said the coronavirus pandemic would be extremely or very important to their vote, Biden leads 55 percent to 41 percent. Fifty-five percent said they believed Biden would be a better leader in a time of crisis, while only 41 percent chose Trump.
Politics is a game of addition, as the old adage goes. Trump’s coalition, which usually makes up a minority of public opinion, is testing whether subtraction might work.
On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.
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