President Trump enters the Republican National Convention this week politically wounded — and even some members of his own party are not convinced he can stop the bleeding.
Trump has trailed his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, throughout the campaign.
It’s not just the overall polling gap that worries some in the GOP — it’s the president’s seeming lack of interest in expanding support beyond his base.
“You can read the polls as well as I can,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who has argued for years that the party needs to broaden its appeal in a changing nation. “The vast majority [of voters] have very firm views on the president, both pro and con, but elections are decided at the margins.”
Trump has forged ahead with a base-first strategy to an extent that is unique among presidents in the modern era.
Former President Obama made his political name while still a state senator with a 2004 Democratic National Convention speech extolling common ground. As president, he sought bipartisan buy-in on health care reform and a fiscal “grand bargain.”
Former President George W. Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative” and advocated for immigration reform.
Former President Clinton embraced some conservative positions, such as the need for small government, and talked about restoring the “vital center” to American public life.
Trump has done almost none of that, with the one exception of modest criminal justice reform.
Otherwise, he has maintained a barrage of Twitter abuse against his political opponents and the media. He has engaged in inflammatory rhetoric on race. Overall, much of his approach seems animated by the idea that he is the standard-bearer of red-state, MAGA America, constantly besieged by liberal elitists.
His base has never flagged in the cultural war that Trump has stoked. For the rest of the electorate, however, it is a different story.
In the RealClearPolitics polling average on Sunday, Trump was trailing Biden by more than 7 percentage points. Just as importantly, his own support has been mired in the low 40s in most recent polls.
Republicans outside the Trump base worry about the damage that has been done to the party’s brand by four years of tumult. They are especially concerned about the president’s lagging support with voters in the suburbs, particularly women.
In 2016, Trump kept his deficit among all women to 13 points against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. He lost college-educated white women by just 7 points.
In the midterm elections two years later, the Democratic advantage had expanded to 19 points among all women and 20 points among college-educated white women.
Some in the GOP are skeptical that Trump even recognizes the need to turn this around. He is who he is, for good or for bad.
Right now, it doesn’t look like the pro-Trump base is enough to carry him to reelection, unless unremitting attacks on Biden can deliver another upset victory.
Some in the GOP are openly dubious of that game plan.
“Their hope is that they can pull Biden down enough,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee. “But Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton. That turned out to be a sound strategy with Hillary Clinton in part because the voters just never liked her. That is just not the case with Biden.”
Heye added that the three presidential debates this fall could ultimately be a more effective venue than the virtual convention for Trump to try to improve his chances.
Trump has, of course, been hit by a series of troubles that would have tested any president.
More than 175,000 people in America have died from COVID-19.
The strong economy that Trump hoped to run on is a fading memory.
His hard-line rhetoric on the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in May was seen by a plurality of voters as fomenting division.
It is still possible that some of these factors could turn around.
The stock market has recovered from its March lows with startling speed, and a more broad-based economic resurgence could breathe new life into Trump’s chances. A coronavirus vaccine by November is almost out of the question, but even clear evidence that such a development was imminent could help the national mood.
Trump’s campaign evinces confidence and insists that the polls are wrong. The president has a far bigger campaign bank account than he did four years ago, and it could be put to effective use in TV and digital advertising in the weeks before the election.
Republican pollster David Winston asserted that Trump could yet appeal to voters beyond his base if he used the convention to outline policies that would speed the recovery from the coronavirus and address other challenges.
Such an approach would ultimately be more important than questions about Trump’s character, Winston asserted.
“If he can keep it on policy, that means he can address people’s concerns,” Winston said. “They are looking for good outcomes. They are not looking for a best friend.”
The convention, like its Democratic counterpart last week, has been changed beyond recognition by the coronavirus.
Even in virtual form, the convention will be the Trump Show, from start to finish. The New York Times reported late Saturday that the president is expected to speak on each of its four nights.
But whether Trump can win over any new fans is very much in doubt.
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