Trump al­lies urge shift amid ‘atro­cious’ polling

As di­vi­sive rhetoric peaks and Bi­den surges, some push staff shake-up

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ASHLEY PARKER, ROBERT COSTA AND JOSH DAWSEY

Pres­i­dent Trump and his cam­paign team are grap­pling with how to re­sus­ci­tate his im­per­iled re­elec­tion ef­fort amid a wave of polling that shows him badly trail­ing pre­sump­tive Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Joe Bi­den and los­ing trac­tion even among core con­stituen­cies.

Some Trump ad­vis­ers and al­lies are pri­vately push­ing for sweep­ing changes to the cam­paign, in­clud­ing the idea of a ma­jor staff shake-up and try­ing to con­vince the pres­i­dent to be more dis­ci­plined in his mes­sage and be­hav­ior.

But so far, the cam­paign has set­tled only on in­cre­men­tal changes — such as hir­ing and el­e­vat­ing a hand­ful of op­er­a­tives who worked on Trump’s up­set vic­tory in 2016 — and has yet to set­tle on a clear mes­sage for his re­elec­tion. Cam­paign of­fi­cials and other ad­vis­ers are also still strug­gling with how to best fo­cus their at­tacks on Bi­den, which so far have been scat­ter­shot and have failed to curb his rise among vot­ers.

And then there’s Trump him­self, who has de­railed his team’s de­sired themes on an al­most daily ba­sis — de­ploy­ing racist rhetoric and mount­ing in­cen­di­ary at­tacks on crit­ics amid a surg­ing coro­n­avirus pan­demic, an eco­nomic cri­sis and roil­ing protests over police bru­tal­ity.

Nu­mer­ous na­tional polls show Trump los­ing sig­nif­i­cant ground with se­niors and among white vot­ers, in­clud­ing those with and with­out four-year col­lege de­grees.

He has also slipped among white evan­gel­i­cal vot­ers. Ac­cord­ing to new New York Times/siena Col­lege polls, Trump is at least slightly be­hind Bi­den in six states that he won in 2016 and

are piv­otal to his re­elec­tion path — in­clud­ing Michi­gan, Penn­syl­va­nia and Wis­con­sin, where he trails by dou­ble dig­its.

“You can’t win with these numbers. They’re atro­cious numbers,” said Ed­ward J. Rollins, co-chair­man of the proTrump su­per PAC Great Amer­ica and the for­mer cam­paign man­ager for Ron­ald Rea­gan’s 1984 re­elec­tion cam­paign.

“The pres­i­dent must straighten his cam­paign out and con­vey to the Amer­i­can peo­ple that he can move for­ward and lead,” Rollins said. “He’s got to go out and add 10 points pretty quick. If he can do that, he’ll win. If not, Bi­den is sit­ting there as the al­ter­na­tive.”

Trump’s ad­vis­ers and al­lies have grown frus­trated with some of the pres­i­dent’s in­cen­di­ary and di­vi­sive be­hav­ior and com­ments in re­cent weeks and are dis­mayed by the polls, in­clud­ing some of their in­ter­nal sur­veys that also show him los­ing to Bi­den. The pres­i­dent also came un­der fire for a June 20 rally in Tulsa that failed to at­tract much of a crowd even as the cam­paign down­played coro­n­avirus dis­tanc­ing guide­lines.

But many Trump al­lies re­main deeply skep­ti­cal of the pub­lic polling — point­ing to 2016 polls in key states that un­der­es­ti­mated Trump’s sup­port — and say the in­ter­nal polling and mod­el­ing they’re shar­ing with the pres­i­dent is less grim than the pub­lic sur­veys. Mul­ti­ple cam­paign and Repub­li­can of­fi­cials also as­serted that they have seen no se­ri­ous ero­sion in Trump’s po­lit­i­cal base.

“Over the past four months, the pres­i­dent’s sup­port among Repub­li­can vot­ers has ranged be­tween 90 and 94 per­cent con­sis­tently,” said Tony Fabrizio, the cam­paign’s chief poll­ster, re­fer­ring to the cam­paign’s in­ter­nal polls. “As of our most re­cent polling, it stands at 94 per­cent.”

Fabrizio added that any ero­sion is among in­de­pen­dent vot­ers, who al­ways swing back and forth be­tween the two can­di­dates.

Four re­cent na­tional pub­lic polls show be­tween 87 per­cent and 91 per­cent of Repub­li­cans ap­prov­ing of Trump.

Trump has polled ad­vis­ers on whether he should make changes to the cam­paign, and sev­eral White House and cam­paign of­fi­cials said there were on­go­ing dis­cus­sions on how to im­prove the pres­i­dent’s po­lit­i­cal stand­ing.

Trump has re­sponded to the tur­moil by em­pha­siz­ing his na­tivist and base in­stincts, at­tempt­ing to rally his core sup­port­ers through con­tro­ver­sial com­ments and tweets.

The lat­est ex­am­ple came Sun­day, when Trump retweeted a video that in­cluded a sup­porter pro­claim­ing “white power” in re­sponse to coun­ter­protesters and call­ing his back­ers in the Florida re­tire­ment com­mu­nity where the demon­stra­tion oc­curred “great peo­ple.” Trump later deleted the tweet, and a White House spokesman said the pres­i­dent had not heard the “white power” shout.

He has twice re­ferred to the deadly coro­n­avirus, which orig­i­nated in China, de­ri­sively as the “kung flu.” In an in­ter­view with the Chris­tian Broad­cast­ing Net­work on Mon­day, he base­lessly ac­cused for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama of “trea­son.” And he has dis­missed the racial jus­tice protesters — who took to the streets after the killing of Ge­orge Floyd in police cus­tody — as “hood­lums,” “thugs” and even “ter­ror­ists,” promis­ing “ret­ri­bu­tion” in an in­ter­view with Fox News’s Sean Han­nity on Thurs­day night.

Ad­vis­ers, mean­while, are frus­trated with the pres­i­dent’s ten­dency to por­tray him­self as the vic­tim and have urged him to stop the pub­lic dis­plays of self­pity.

“If the elec­tion was to­day, we are in big trou­ble,” ac­cord­ing to one per­son close to Trump, who like oth­ers spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to share a can­did as­sess­ment. “Thank­fully, it is not.”

An ur­gent task for Trump and his team, ad­vis­ers say, is to find a way to neg­a­tively de­fine Bi­den — trans­form­ing the elec­tion into a choice be­tween the two men, rather than a ref­er­en­dum on the pres­i­dent.

Trump has re­cently been ask­ing ad­vis­ers whether he should stick with his cur­rent nick­name for Bi­den — “Sleepy Joe” — or try to coin an­other moniker, such as “Swampy Joe” or “Creepy Joe.” The pres­i­dent is not con­vinced that “Sleepy Joe” is par­tic­u­larly dam­ag­ing, and some of his ad­vis­ers agree and have urged him to stop us­ing the nick­name. In a tweet on Sun­day, Trump tried out yet an­other vari­ant: “Cor­rupt Joe.”

Some ad­vis­ers are also con­cerned that the cam­paign’s at­tacks on Bi­den’s men­tal acu­ity might alien­ate older vot­ers, and that they also in­ad­ver­tently set a low bar for gaug­ing Bi­den’s per­for­mance.

Trump’s team has de­ployed the hash­tag #Hi­den­biden, in­tended to high­light that it’s been nearly three months since Bi­den has held a reg­u­lar news con­fer­ence and pres­sure him into more pub­lic ap­pear­ances. In ad­di­tion, the cam­paign plans to de­ploy a theme cast­ing Trump as a builder — a for­mer real es­tate de­vel­oper who cre­ated jobs and a strong econ­omy be­fore the coro­n­avirus pan­demic and who has pushed ahead with con­struc­tion of a new wall at the south­ern bor­der.

“I think when it comes down to a bi­nary choice, and they look at Bi­den, the nat­u­ral ques­tion is go­ing to be: How can you run as a change agent and a change can­di­date when you spent 50 years in Wash­ing­ton?” said Ronna Mc

Daniel, chair of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee.

Trump’s team had ini­tially fash­ioned much of the cam­paign around the strong econ­omy but now is push­ing a “re­new, re­store, re­build” theme, hop­ing to stress that Trump is best po­si­tioned to re­turn the coun­try to eco­nomic pros­per­ity.

The cam­paign has un­der­gone a se­ries of staff changes in re­cent weeks in­tended at right­ing the ship, in­clud­ing the ad­di­tion of Ja­son Miller, a for­mer se­nior ad­viser on the 2016 cam­paign who has a good re­la­tion­ship with Trump.

A com­par­i­son of re­cent na­tional polls to 2016 exit polls and a Pew sur­vey of con­firmed vot­ers finds Trump has lost sig­nif­i­cant ground among whites. He fares slightly bet­ter among non­whites than he did four years ago, though not enough to coun­ter­bal­ance these other losses.

Trump won whites by an av­er­age of 18 points across two sur­veys of 2016 vot­ers; sur­veys since late May av­er­aged by The Wash­ing­ton Post show him lead­ing by five per­cent­age points. Among whites with­out col­lege de­grees, Trump won by 37 points over Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016, but re­cent polls show him drop­ping 15 points, to a 22-point ad­van­tage over Bi­den. And though Trump won se­niors by eight points in 2016, he trails Bi­den by five points on av­er­age in re­cent na­tional polls.

Juan Peñalosa, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Florida Demo­cratic Party, said se­niors say they are wor­ried about the econ­omy and an­gry about the coro­n­avirus re­sponse. “They are an­gry be­cause they feel as if they are pris­on­ers in their own home and they can’t see their grand­chil­dren,” Peñalosa said. “And they blame Trump for this.”

Trump cam­paign man­ager Brad Parscale re­jected the va­lid­ity of pub­lic polling and blamed the me­dia for many of the pres­i­dent’s woes. “We know we are in solid shape in all of our key states, and no amount of fake, nar­ra­tive-set­ting me­dia polls can ever change that,” Parscale said in an email.

A se­nior White House of­fi­cial said that although Bi­den out­raised Trump for the first time in May, the Trump cam­paign still out­matches Bi­den with $265 mil­lion cash on hand.

White House and cam­paign ad­vis­ers are hom­ing in on Wis­con­sin, Ari­zona, Florida and North Carolina as states where they must win — say­ing that they are in good shape in Ohio and that Michi­gan and Penn­syl­va­nia will be far more dif­fi­cult this time. In a clear sign of worry, the cam­paign has pur­chased ad time in Ge­or­gia, a long­time GOP strong­hold.

Some of the pres­i­dent’s ad­vis­ers have told him that his hard­edge mes­sag­ing has hurt him in re­cent weeks, show­ing him polling from swing states where he is trail­ing. And they have urged him to a run a gen­eral elec­tion strat­egy that ap­peals to a broader swath of vot­ers, rather than a pri­mary strat­egy that caters to his al­ready en­er­gized base, said one per­son fa­mil­iar with the en­cour­age­ment.

Two peo­ple who spoke with Trump this week said he is ar­gu­ing that groups de­fac­ing and tear­ing down mon­u­ments and stat­ues will ul­ti­mately ben­e­fit him po­lit­i­cally be­cause the pub­lic will ap­pre­ci­ate his harsh stance and “law and or­der” mes­sage. The pres­i­dent has also told his po­lit­i­cal ad­vis­ers that there is more en­thu­si­asm for him than Bi­den, and he doesn’t be­lieve the polls, say­ing “10 points” should be added to his numbers.

“The cam­paign is hy­per-fo­cused on play­ing to the base — I think it’s a mis­take,” said Chris Ruddy, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the con­ser­va­tive News­max Me­dia and a long­time Trump con­fi­dant. “Pol­i­tics are about ad­di­tion, not sub­trac­tion. In this en­vi­ron­ment, the pres­i­dent has to do a lot of plus plus plus ad­di­tion signs right now with ev­ery group that he pos­si­bly can.”

With Trump strug­gling to cope with nu­mer­ous crises, many in both par­ties say his stan­dard play­book may not work as it did in 2016.

“In con­ser­va­tive places like Ohio, you re­ally won­der if what Trump is sell­ing will work again,” said for­mer Ohio gover­nor Ted Strick­land, a Demo­crat. “NASCAR is ban­ning the Con­fed­er­ate flag at races. Mil­i­tary lead­ers are speak­ing out against him. If the NFL starts again, you’ll see a lot of peo­ple kneel­ing. This is not the same coun­try that it was in 2016.”

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Re­cent polls show Pres­i­dent Trump trail­ing Joe Bi­den in six swing states he won in 2016. His cam­paign has un­der­gone staff changes, but of­fi­cials say na­tional sur­veys un­der­es­ti­mate Trump’s sup­port.

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