The Memo: Trump needs more than his base

President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama calls on Senate not to fill Ginsburg's vacancy until after election Planned Parenthood: 'The fate of our rights' depends on Ginsburg replacement Progressive group to spend M in ad campaign on Supreme Court vacancy MORE’s base of support is famously resilient. But it likely isn’t big enough to win him a second term.

Trump has spent much of the campaign offering up his greatest hits to supporters, including blasts at the media and his opponent Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate Republicans face tough decision on replacing Ginsburg What Senate Republicans have said about election-year Supreme Court vacancies Biden says Ginsburg successor should be picked by candidate who wins on Nov. 3 MORE, threats that the “radical left” will bring mayhem if Democrats win the White House and vigorous affirmations of the need for “law and order.”

Crowds at Trump’s rallies lap it all up. But it is a different story in the nation at large.

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Trump lagged Biden by more than 7 percentage points in the national RealClearPolitics polling average on Friday evening. Biden has led throughout the campaign, and his margin has remained stable for roughly a month.

Data site FiveThirtyEight was giving Biden a 75 percent chance of prevailing as of Friday.

Trump’s troubles are deepened by an unexpected fundraising disadvantage. In August, Biden and his Democratic allies raised $364.5 million, outpacing Trump and the GOP by more than $140 million. A New York Times report on Monday noted that the Trump campaign and its allies had already spent more than $800 million of the $1.1 billion they raised between January 2019 and July 2020.

The big question for Trump and his campaign is how they might be able to nudge up his popularity to the point where he can win a second term.

In seven of the eight most recent national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics, Trump’s deficit against Biden is 6 points or greater. That’s too big a gap to plausibly repeat his 2016 achievement, when he defeated Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhat Senate Republicans have said about election-year Supreme Court vacancies Bipartisan praise pours in after Ginsburg's death Trump carries on with rally, unaware of Ginsburg's death MORE handily in the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by roughly 2 percentage points.

Republicans and Democrats alike don’t see Trump as out of contention yet. In GOP circles, there is a belief that there are concrete ways in which the president could turn things around.

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The prescription Republicans put forth is fairly simple: Talk up the economy’s recovery from the depths of its coronavirus-related troubles. Corral back into the fold conservatives who might have personal misgivings about Trump by emphasizing his traditional GOP policy priorities. Put on a strong showing in the three presidential debates, the first of which takes place at the end of this month. And be disciplined.

Whether Trump can do those things is an entirely different question.

He has spent much of the past two weeks on defense over comments he made to veteran journalist and author Bob Woodward about the coronavirus, and separate remarks he is alleged to have made about veterans.

A shift toward the economy, in particular, could help his cause.

“His strongest argument is, who would you rather have rebuild the economy — myself or Joe Biden?” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.

O’Connell also contended that the media are prone to exaggerate the likely electoral effects of many of the furors that swirl around Trump.

“When it comes to partisans, I don’t think it is going to matter very much,” O’Connell argued. “The very narrow band of people who are going to decide this election are either going to decide they don’t like everything about Trump but they feel he delivers, or they are going to think Joe Biden is not someone who I want.”

It is equally plausible that Trump’s personal conduct simply alienates too many people, however. And, as The New York Times noted back in June, some polls have shown that voters who have unfavorable views of both candidates lean heavily toward Biden — a reversal from 2016, when Trump ultimately won that cohort over Clinton.

A Republican strategist with ties to the White House, who requested anonymity to talk candidly, said Trump could make big strides if he performed well at the debates and made the case that the nation is on the path back to normalcy after the traumas of the coronavirus.

On both the economy and the coronavirus, the strategist said, “voters want to see that the trend is in the right direction.”

The danger for Trump, however, is that COVID-19 will dominate all else. When polls break down particular issues, the pandemic is one of the areas where he is weakest.

In a recent Economist/YouGov survey, just 38 percent of Americans expressed confidence in Trump’s ability to handle the coronavirus whereas 56 percent said they were uneasy.

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The same poll showed two issues on which Trump was notably stronger than any others.

One was terrorism, where respondents approved of his performance by 45 percent to 43 percent. The other was the economy and jobs, where 46 percent backed his performance and, again, 43 percent disapproved.

On the seven other issues tested in the Economist poll — immigration, climate change, education, health care, taxes, civil rights and gun control — a plurality disapproved of Trump’s performance.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said that one of Trump’s best strategies could be to appeal to Republican and conservative voters beyond his hardcore base.

Zelizer cited judicial appointments, tax cuts and deregulation as among the topics the president could emphasize during the election’s closing stretch.

“Trump has generally delivered on Republican policies — I think that doesn’t get enough discussion,” Zelizer said. “I think if you’re someone who can tolerate him and the way he acts, there are a lot of Republicans who are happy about what he’s done.”

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Trump is renowned for going off-script and for fueling controversies that seem to harm him. That means that, even in the GOP, there are doubts about whether he can focus enough to squeeze out a win in November.

The Republican strategist said that when it came to emphasizing recovery and normalcy, “if he were to pound that message home constantly, without straying from it, that would be a real help toward pushing him across the finish line.”

Asked what the chances were of Trump delivering that kind of disciplined performance, the strategist laughed and said: “Very small.”


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.