Trump gambles on law-and-order strategy

President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE is seeking to project the image of a law-and-order candidate as he faces a competitive reelection bid against former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Methane fee faces negotiations White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege The No Surprises Act:  a bill long overdue MORE, but some are questioning the timing and effectiveness of his strategy.

Trump has made his support for law enforcement and police departments clear amid protests over racial inequality that erupted nationwide earlier this year, forming a political wedge that divides him from the Black Lives Matter movement and Democrats.

"I STAND FOR LAW AND ORDER AND I TOOK ACTION!" Trump tweeted Thursday evening, during the Democratic National Convention, adding that "Sleepy Joe Biden and the Radical Left excuses violence and crime in their Democrat-run cities."

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Democrats have embraced this year's demonstrators, remaining comparatively mum during outbursts of looting, vandalism and violence against police officers. And the president has seized on their response, repeatedly bashing Democratic leaders over crime rates in major cities and their treatment of local law enforcement.

While some on the left call to defund the police, Trump has advocated for aggressive and controversial policing tactics, including threatening to deploy federal law enforcement to more U.S. cities after sending forces to Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., despite pushback from state and local officials.

Some pollsters, GOP strategists and Republicans, however, argue the president’s law-and-order approach is not a winning campaign message when voters are focused on the devastation wrought by COVID-19.

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“There doesn't seem to be much evidence that it's working,” said Geoffrey Skelley, an elections analyst at the polling firm FiveThirtyEight. “The coronavirus pandemic is top of mind for people. It outweighs all the other issues, and the president gets very poor marks for his handling of it. That's a really big problem for him.”

According to Gallup’s monthly poll on what respondents consider the “most important problem” in the U.S., the top three issues were the coronavirus, “the government/poor leadership” and the economy — which is closely tied to the pandemic. Race relations ranked fourth.

With a majority of voters disapproving of the president’s handling of the global health crisis, which has seen nearly 6 million cases and roughly 175,000 deaths in the U.S., Biden leads Trump in polls nationally and in most swing states.

Still, some House Republicans argue the law-and-order message, which echoes the approach former President Nixon took in 1968, works at this point in time because they can tie Biden’s campaign to the progressive push to defund the police.

“I think the messaging could work because you have two individuals that are running on a platform that supports defunding the police,” said GOP Rep. Denver RigglemanDenver RigglemanHouse Democrats select Riggleman as Jan. 6 committee adviser Virginia Democrats seek to tie Youngkin to Trump's election claims The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Jan. 6 probe, infrastructure to dominate week MORE (Va.).

Neither Biden nor his running mate, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisObama looks to give new momentum to McAuliffe Kamala Harris engages with heckler during New York speech Biden's safe-space CNN town hall attracts small audience, as poll numbers plummet MORE (D-Calif.), have endorsed defunding police departments. Nevertheless, the Trump campaign has insisted that the law-and-order approach is a winning issue and has leaned into messaging and ads that depict a country that would not be safe under Biden’s leadership.

“Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!” the president wrote in a tweet last month directed at “Suburban Housewives.”

Trump’s tough-on-crime approach is not new. During the heated 2016 presidential race, he ran saying he would destroy terrorist organizations and build a southern border wall to, as he claimed, keep out drug lords, rapists and other criminals. He also advocated for bringing back tough anti-crime policies.

That year, Trump received endorsements from major police groups such as the Fraternal Order of Police, which bills itself as the largest police union in the country.

And more police unions have endorsed Trump this cycle.

Most recently, the president was endorsed by the New York City Police Department union, which represents roughly 24,000 members. Union President Patrick Lynch praised Trump for his support and lamented that the city’s law enforcement officers were falsely being described as “evil.”

“I cannot remember when we’ve ever endorsed for the office of president of the United States, until now. That’s how important this is," Lynch said, to which Trump responded he is “anti-crime and pro-cop all the way.”

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Additionally, Trump’s Justice Department has recently expanded Operation Legend, a program that sends law enforcement officials to U.S. cities including Chicago and Kansas City, Mo., in an effort to combat violent crime.

A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll found Trump triumphed over Biden in assessments of safety from violent crime, with 25 percent of those polled saying crime would be better under Biden, while 32 percent say it would be worse. Forty-one percent said it would likely be the same under either Trump or Biden.

Biden, however, tops the president on how viewers believe he will handle race relations, as well as the coronavirus pandemic.

The same poll found 46 percent of respondents believe race relations would be better under Biden than Trump, compared with 20 percent who said it would be worse — a 26-point margin. Biden also had a 22-point margin in terms of voters viewing him as better than Trump in handling the COVID-19 response.

But Biden’s decision to pick Harris as his running mate could help him on the issue. The first Black woman on a major party presidential ticket is expected to draw out Black and minority voters, but Harris, a former prosecutor who also served as California’s attorney general, could boost the ticket on its perceptions of addressing crime.

Republicans are already working on ways to poke holes in her record.

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Some GOP members have indicated that they plan to replicate the attacks Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardThe perfect Democratic running mate for DeSantis? Progressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal Hillicon Valley: US has made progress on cyber but more needed, report says | Democrat urges changes for 'problematic' crypto language in infrastructure bill | Facebook may be forced to unwind Giphy acquisition MORE (D-Hawaii) waged against Harris during the Democratic primary debates last year on issues such as overcrowding in California prisons, allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and initially resisting appeals for DNA testing from a death row inmate.

“When you were in a position to impact these people’s lives you did not,” Gabbard said to Harris. “And worse yet, in the case of those on death row, innocent people, you actually blocked evidence that would have freed them, until you were forced to do that, and the people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor, you owe them an apology.”

House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseThe 9 Republicans who voted to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — US cracks down on tools for foreign hacking House passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure MORE (R-La.) said Gabbard raised the “biggest issue” of concern about Harris’s record: “That she concealed the evidence during a capital murder trial.”

“That part of her record is going to be scrutinized in a way that it never got scrutiny in the primaries,” Scalise told The Hill.

Still, while Trump’s law-and-order message may pull in some voters during the final months of the campaign, Skelley and others noted how the president’s actions and rhetoric over the explosive national moment following the May death of George Floyd in police custody — including the administration’s forceful clearing of peaceful protesters in D.C. — ultimately gave Biden a boost in the polls.

“You saw the president ... do things that seemingly were an attempt to sort of showcase an aggressive law-and-order stance, and Joe Biden got out to like an 8-point lead nationally after being up 5, 6 points before that,” said Skelley. “It's been pretty steady there ever since.”

—Juliegrace Brufke contributed.