The Memo: Trump’s song remains the same amid bleak polls
President Trump keeps singing the same song even as polls show him falling badly behind his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.
In recent days, Trump has spoken or tweeted about Hillary Clinton’s emails, the Mueller inquiry and the “fake news” media, among other topics.
He has seized on a controversial New York Post story about Hunter Biden and Ukraine. He has even amplified, through retweets, suggestions that the raid that killed al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in 2011 was some kind of hoax.
There is a market for those kinds of views. Trump often gets the loudest cheers at his rallies when he plays his rhetorical “greatest hits.” But Republican strategists worry that Trump’s approach is deeply ineffective given his apparent deficit in the polls and the short period of time left before Election Day.
Early voting has already begun, and Nov. 3 is less than three weeks away. Trump lags Biden by 9.4 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average.
“It is perplexing, to put it mildly, to see a candidate who is behind — seemingly more and more behind — do nothing but double down on issues that may rev up his base but don’t win over a single new voter,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.
Trump’s difficulties were underlined in new national polls released Thursday. A Marist College survey had him 12 points down to Biden overall, 54-42 percent. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll had Trump trailing by 11 points, 53-42 percent.
Both polls demonstrated Trump’s strength among his base — and the limitations of that base.
The Marist poll showing him drawing the backing of 93 percent of Republicans. Biden, as expected, had overwhelming support from Democrats. The key difference was with independents, who favored Biden by more than 20 points, 57 percent to 36 percent.
The NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll outlined just how polarizing Trump is. The share of voters who said they had a “very positive” impression of Trump, 31 percent, was higher than for Biden, at 24 percent. But almost half of all registered voters, at 46 percent, had a “very negative” impression of Trump. Just 30 percent felt the same way about Biden.
Trump and his most loyal supporters hearken back to 2016, when he ran a campaign built around base-friendly slogans (“Build the Wall!”) and insults of opponents (“Crooked Hillary”) to win a shock victory.
But the contention that the president can repeat his performance this year faces at least two hurdles. Biden is not nearly as widely disliked as Clinton was, despite months of attacks from the Trump campaign and its surrogates. And voters will now be judging Trump in large part on his performance over the past four years, rather than giving him the benefit of the doubt as a disruptor of the status quo.
The president’s tendency to return to the topic of Clinton’s emails — he raised the subject during a friendly interview with radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh last week — is especially perplexing, even to Republicans.
“He is not running against Hillary Clinton, which is unfortunate for him because she was massively unpopular,” said GOP strategist Dan Judy. “He is doing what he did in 2016, and it worked, but I just don’t see it getting him any extra votes.”
Trump does have more fertile areas to plow. He consistently performs better on the economy than on any other issue. There is a widespread belief, in and beyond Republican circles, that a reelection campaign fought on that territory would give him the strongest chance of success.
The president does talk about his economic record, often seeking to take credit for the strong performance of the stock market. The problem, in the eyes of many GOP insiders, is that his propensity to deliver red meat to the base, or to incite controversy, overshadows those efforts.
Still, some Trump loyalists believe there is a path to victory if the president can bring some focus to the final stretch of the campaign.
“I think the best argument is, look at my results and not the rhetoric. … ‘You might not like the way I say things, but at least you have to give me credit for the things I have done,’” said Brad Blakeman, a veteran of former President George W. Bush’s White House and a Trump supporter.
Blakeman argued that a reminder of the strength of the pre-COVID economy, a plan for how to get out of the pandemic and vigorous support for law enforcement could be an effective triple play for Trump.
“The undecided voters are thinking about their own personal lives,” he said. “‘How is my life going to be improved?’ and ‘We have to get through COVID’ and ‘We have to be safe in our homes.’”
The problem, of course, is that even many conservatives don’t believe Trump has the desire or self-discipline to stick with such a message.
“When there is a conspiracy theory about the death of Osama bin Laden you can tweet, why talk about the economy?” Dan Judy asked wryly. “He is not doing himself any favors.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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