President Trump faces the prospect of growing dissent within his own party unless he can arrest his slide in the polls.
Trump has fallen a significant distance behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in recent weeks, as the coronavirus has become resurgent. Republicans are eyeing their electoral futures with increasing nervousness.
“Are they worried about Trump’s approval rating? Absolutely, because many of them know they cannot significantly outperform the president. If you are in a swing state or in a swing district, you need the president to be at least competitive,” said one former Republican member of Congress, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Asked about Trump’s chances of reelection, the former member replied with one word: “Improbable.”
Ryan Williams, a GOP strategist and former aide to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), said, “Republican elected officials are beginning to see this is headed in the wrong direction and the pandemic is not going to go away before Election Day.”
Trump, Williams added, “is in a tremendous hole right now and is running out of time.”
Romney has been among the most willing Republicans to criticize Trump. He was the sole GOP senator to vote to convict Trump on one count of impeachment. More recently, he tweeted that the president’s commutation of Roger Stone’s sentence was an act of “unprecedented, historic corruption.”
Most Republicans decline to condemn Trump in anything close to such emphatic terms. But there are some signs that they are willing to put distance between themselves and the president.
A New York Times report over the weekend noted that even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has generally been a strong Trump ally, last week “broke with Mr. Trump on nearly every major issue related to the virus.”
The Times cited McConnell’s strong support for the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, Anthony Fauci; his cautionary note that Americans would be struggling with the coronavirus for some time; and his emphasis on the importance of wearing a mask.
Trump for the first time tweeted a photograph of himself wearing a mask on Monday afternoon. “Many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance. There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President!” he wrote.
Trump also said on Monday that White House briefings on the pandemic — which appeared to have been abandoned — would be brought back, starting Tuesday. Their return might be savored by the president, but they could also fray the nerves of his party colleagues, given his propensity to wander off script.
At a briefing in April, Trump suggested to widespread consternation that the ingestion of disinfectant might help treat COVID-19.
Republicans are already nervous enough.
The weekend New York Times report cited remarks apparently made by former GOP Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.) at a corporate event. According to a partial transcript of those remarks, Ryan fretted about how heavily Trump was losing suburban voters to Biden and said, “if that sticks, he cannot win states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.”
Trump trails Biden by almost 9 points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average. Three major recent polls have put him down by double digits, including an ABC News-Washington Post poll over the weekend that showed Trump lagging by 15 points among registered voters and by 10 points among likely voters.
The same poll showed voters having more trust in Biden than Trump to handle the pandemic by a 20-point margin, 54 percent to 34 percent.
There is no real secret as to the various ingredients that have put Trump in his current predicament.
The United States has failed to “bend the curve” of COVID-19 infections downward, unlike most other developed nations. The economic damage has been severe, robbing Trump of one of the most vital pillars for his reelection campaign. Alongside this, the nation has been roiled by protests over racial injustice and voters have generally disapproved of the president’s response.
The Trump campaign and its allies insist the opinion polls are wrong, alleging that they are not modeling likely turnout correctly and may be under-representing the president’s support.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told Fox News on Monday, “I have really struggled with a lot of these polls and the metrics behind them. Many of the polls are sampling only registered voters … What we are seeing at the RNC is the president doing incredibly well in battleground states.”
Trump also fired a warning shot across his critics’ bows during a contentious interview with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.”
“Do you know how many times I’ve been written off? My whole life,” Trump told Wallace, before adding, “I won’t lose.”
The seismic shock Trump delivered by his defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 makes many political insiders nervous about making predictions this time around — even though Clinton never led by as much as Biden does now.
Virtually no one expects Biden to win by anything like the margins the polls are currently predicting. But Republicans nevertheless understand the steepness of the climb Trump faces — and the rising gradient for the party’s down-ballot candidates.
“At some point, there is every expectation that we will see some tightening of the numbers. Once that happens, do we overreact to that as well — ‘He’s coming back! Is Biden in trouble?’ ” said Doug Heye, a former communications director of the RNC.
But, Heye added in reference to the pandemic and its economic impact, “politically, the significant thing is that this election is not going to be about what we thought it was going to be about in January.”
For Republican elected officials, there is a serious dilemma. The president is an increasingly heavy millstone when it comes to winning over moderate, suburban voters but he remains very popular with his base. A recent Fox News poll indicated that his performance in office retained the approval of 86 percent of Republican voters.
The president, meanwhile, has always been quick to return fire on any Republican whom he perceives as disloyal.
“It is doubly troubling for Republicans, running with a president who is becoming increasingly unpopular but who will also attack them if they try to put any distance between him and themselves,” said Williams, the GOP strategist.
“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
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