Donald Trump has begun openly acknowledging his precarious re-election chances, but is undercutting his own campaign’s attempts to tailor appeals to women and seniors as polls show them flocking toward Joe Biden.
Recent polls have shown Biden with growing leads nationally and in key battleground states, an advantage driven largely by erosion in Trump’s support among women and people 65 and older. Trump’s campaign has begun running more ads aimed at seniors, and hopes some of the loss can be offset by gains among Latino and Black voters.
But the campaign’s efforts to reverse the trends face a headwind: Trump himself. The president has undercut the outreach to seniors by continuing to downplay the coronavirus outbreak and by mocking Biden’s age.
He’s tested what support he still enjoys from women by unloading particularly pointed attacks on Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, and by mocking Hillary Clinton’s failure to crack the “glass ceiling” on the White House. And a televised town hall Thursday was almost immediately derailed by Trump declining to disavow a far-right conspiracy theory movement, QAnon.
Meanwhile, the prospect he may lose re-election has begun to creep into Trump’s speeches, even as he insists that polls are wrong. “I’m running against the worst candidate in the history of presidential politics, and if I lose, it puts more pressure,” Trump said at a rally Thursday in North Carolina. “How do you lose to a guy like this?”
He has reprised a version of that remark at most of his events this week while pointing to signs that polls may not capture the state of the race: the thousands of supporters attending his rallies; Republican success registering voters in some competitive states; boat parades in his honor.
“The president has not been able to sustain a consistent message on issues that are critical to the electorate, whether it be the handling of the pandemic or the economy,” said Ken Spain, a veteran Republican strategist. “He’s taken to making direct pleas to critical demographic groups as opposed to laying out an agenda.”
Trump’s allies have begun voicing their concerns publicly. Texas Senator John Cornyn said in a Fox News interview this week that he is “very concerned” about Trump’s standing in polls, making it even more urgent that Republicans hang onto the Senate as “as a firewall.” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said Thursday he thinks Biden has a “good chance” of beating Trump.
Trump himself has been more circumspect.
“I guess the polls are close but I don’t believe the polls,” Trump told an American Enterprise Institute podcast, “What the Hell Is Going On,” in an episode released Wednesday. “We have a lot of people registering as Republicans that never did before. So I think we’re going to be in great shape. I just see it. I see the enthusiasm. It’s incredible.”
Biden’s campaign has also urged caution, in a bid to prevent complacency among Democratic voters. Jen O’Malley Dillon, his campaign manager, said in a tweet this week that “we think this race is far closer than folks on this website think.”
Trump’s campaign said it’s confident with its strategy in the final weeks before the election. “President Trump has effectively made his case to the American people by governing with a successful America First agenda in his first term,” Samantha Zager, a Trump campaign spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.
On Monday, Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, told reporters on a conference call that the president’s standing with seniors would be improved, including through ads aimed specifically at the demographic.
“Messaging that seniors want to see and is being delivered to them,” he said. “So whatever perceived slippage you’re seeing in your numbers among seniors, I’m absolutely certain that it will be addressed.”
But late Tuesday, Trump retweeted a meme mocking Biden’s age, 77, and suggesting he should be a resident in a nursing home rather than president.
At the Thursday town hall, Trump was repeatedly off-message: endorsing parts of the QAnon conspiracy theory, bristling when asked why he hasn’t more forcefully condemned white supremacists and saying that contracting the coronavirus hasn’t made him change his views on masks, which he almost never wears. As the event concluded, he was offered a chance to speak directly to voters who wonder why he deserves a second chance, and offered little substance. “Because I’ve done a great job,” he replied.
It was the latest instance of Trump undermining his campaign’s reset.
When the campaign tried in May to seize on a Biden gaffe, in which the Democrat said that Black voters who support Trump “ain’t Black,” Trump tweeted a week later about “thugs” protesting the death of George Floyd.
During the summer, as polls showed him losing support among suburban women, Trump started using the term “suburban housewives,” an anachronism. In a Fox Business interview Oct. 8, Trump called Harris — the first Black and Indian-American woman to be join a major-party ticket — a “monster.” On Thursday in Greenville, North Carolina, he made fun of Clinton’s loss to him in 2016.
“They talked about the glass ceiling, right, the woman breaking the glass ceiling, and it didn’t work out that way — the glass ceiling broke her,” he said.
He added: “But there will be a woman that breaks the glass ceiling, it just won’t be Hillary. And you know who else it won’t be? It won’t be Kamala.”
He has recently acknowledged his deficit with women, while noting that he also polled poorly with women before his 2016 victory. In an appeal at a Pennsylvania rally on Tuesday, Trump said: “Suburban women, will you please like me?”
In Iowa, a state where a Senate race between two women could help determine control of the chamber, Trump said on Wednesday: “I heard I’m not doing well with suburban women, OK?”
“It’s true, they say that, but of course they said that last election too. ‘He will do terribly with women, terribly,”’ he continued. “And then when I did great with women, they said ‘Man, he did well with women.’ Same thing’s going to happen.”
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Oct. 11 showed that Biden leads Trump by 23 percentage points among women voters and that the candidates are tied among men, a trend consistent with other surveys.
Trump’s tendency to muddy his campaign’s message is amplified by its dependence on his trademark campaign rallies. He has scheduled a rally every day this week in a frantic bid to close the gap with Biden, after spending more than a week off the campaign trail recovering from Covid-19.
It’s normal for a candidate’s base of support to vary slightly from one election to the next, Stepien said, arguing that Trump’s gains among minorities will make up for shifts to Biden among female and older White voters.
“I’m more than certain that those are going to be offset by gains in certain voting populations — Black, Hispanic and others, based on the president’s appeal, his policies and the outreach he’s been conducting for the last four years,” he said.
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