President Trump and his party are entering the nine-week stretch until Election Day with their success riding on a hope that enough voters come to the following conclusion: You’re not as bad as we thought.
As part of this strategy, Republicans and the Trump campaign are attempting to focus voters’ minds away from the pandemic and economic crisis and on a narrower set of cultural issues. For example, the nation is in dire straits, they say, not because of Covid-19 deaths or double-digit unemployment or racial discord, but because of liberals who want to “cancel” conservatives, criminals who are rampaging from the cities into white suburbs and a Democratic presidential ticket that is a “Trojan horse” for Fidel Castro-style authoritarianism.
These topics often consume conservative media, are already appearing in ads from the Trump campaign and his allies — and were mentioned repeatedly over the four nights of the Republican National Convention.
To complement the drumbeat of panic about the radical left, convention speakers stressed their personal experiences with the president and shared affirmations about his character — a man of “deep compassion” and “endless kindness” with an “exceptional work ethic,” they said. And they attempted to refute the idea that he dislikes Black people, women and immigrants, calling those divisive characterizations by the left and distortions of a media “fog machine.” Ben Carson, the only Black member of Mr. Trump’s cabinet, said people who called the president racist “could not be more wrong.”
Strategists in both parties say this attempt to reframe the country’s understanding of who the president is could backfire, coming off as dismissive of the acute racial awareness that has been leading people of all political beliefs and races to re-examine their attitudes about discrimination.
But they also said it just might work.
“It is a fascinating tightrope they’re walking on because on the one hand Trump is saying some of the most racist, bombastic stuff ever to come out of the mouth of a nominee of a major political party,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked for Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns, when racial attitudes were never far from the surface. “At the same time, they are professing and having others validate that he is not a racist. The contradiction is mind boggling.”
Mr. Belcher added, “It is diabolical, but it’s also brilliant.”
Inside Republican campaigns across the country, operatives are intent on reaching a relatively small slice of the electorate: Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who have either not voted or voted for Democrats since Mr. Trump took office because they dislike his style and leadership. The goal between now and the election is to make these more moderate voters feel comfortable again being associated with a party they think has lurched far to the right, unapologetically condoning and courting racists, bigots and other extremists.
Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster, called these “wobbly Republicans” and said they are often deeply conflicted about voting in November. The goal of Republicans this fall, she said, is to “remind them why they’re Republicans.”
“The idea is to aggressively push back against the caricature of Republicans, which is something that a wobbly Republican doesn’t want to be,” she said. “If you’re a Trump Republican, you reject that characterization. But if you’re a wobbly Republican, you probably internalize that.”
Convincing voters to accept this less blemished version of the president, which strategists say is probably Mr. Trump’s best hope of winning enough of the roughly 5 to 7 percent of the country that is still undecided, is problematic in that it essentially requires people to imagine that he has not been in charge all along. To forget that the immigrants he joined in a naturalization ceremony in front of the cameras weren’t people from the kinds of countries he profanely denigrated. To excuse him from responsibility for inflaming the tensions in cities that now resemble scenes of the very “American carnage” he vowed to end on Inauguration Day.
Polls show that the percentage of Americans who think the country is on the wrong track — which experts look to as a reliable predictor of how the incumbent president will perform — is near or exceeding 70 percent.
To bring “wobbly Republicans” back on board — not just with the party but with the man currently leading it — they need to change minds about the best known person in the country. That is difficult though not unprecedented. Richard Nixon prevailed in the 1968 election after two humiliating losses that even he believed had crushed his hopes of becoming president — first to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and two years later in the California governor’s race. (The California loss was what prompted Nixon’s most famous utterance of self-pity, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” at what he said was his final news conference.)
But even Nixon had nothing like the level of mass media exposure that Mr. Trump has had, or anything like his insatiable desire to be in the spotlight. And over the five years since he first started running for president, his ubiquity has left few Americans without a firm opinion about him. His job approval ratings have been extraordinarily steady and more aligned with partisan affiliation than any president in the history of modern polling, according to the Pew Research Center.
“He is who he is,” said Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard who ran in the Republican presidential primary in 2016 against Mr. Trump. The idea that a glossy messaging operation could act as a facade over Mr. Trump’s flaws, she said, is far-fetched.
“I think what we know now is that Donald Trump cannot rise to the occasion, he cannot grow into the job,” Ms. Fiorina added. “He is someone who stokes controversy and conflict and outrage. It’s who he was in his reality TV days and who he is as president of the United States.”
Most Americans, she said, are focused on issues that the president and his campaign hope voters will overlook: “When are we going to get this virus under control? When are we going to get my kids back to school? When is my favorite restaurant down the street going to reopen? And some of those Americans voted for Trump.”
On the issues where Republicans are trying to shift the most negative perceptions of the president, the displays and affirmations at the convention do not match public opinion, polls show.
In July, Fox News asked registered voters about whether the believed Mr. Trump and his opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, had traits like compassion, judgment and mental soundness. On the question of compassion, only 36 percent responded that Mr. Trump did. Fifty-six percent said yes about Mr. Biden.
While pro-Trump speakers like Rudolph W. Giuliani disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement and the demonstrators who marched in its name, polling from June and July showed that majorities of Americans have been supportive of the marchers and disapprove of the way the president has handled them. The percentage of people who believe racism and discrimination is a problem, including whites, soared north of 70 percent as protests grew. How the recent unrest and eruption of violence in Kenosha, Wis., will affect these attitudes is unclear.
And 75 percent of Black Americans “strongly disagree” with Mr. Trump’s claims that he has “done much more” to improve their lives than any other president since Abraham Lincoln, according to one recent survey.
The majority of the American public also continues to rate Mr. Trump’s response to the pandemic poorly. And polls show that even Republicans overwhelmingly consider themselves in favor of wearing masks, despite the Trump administration’s inconsistent and often dismissive approach to encouraging them.
Polling does show a growing percentage of Americans of every political persuasion say they have been afraid to express their political opinion. But priorities matter. And the issues Americans continue to say they are concerned about more than any other, aside from the economy, are the coronavirus, leadership and race relations, according to Gallup.
David Winston, a Republican pollster, said that any politician who is not making the coronavirus recovery their focus is misguided. “Given that that’s what everyone in the country is dealing with, if you’re not talking about that, what exactly are you talking about?” he asked.
Strategists in both parties said Mr. Trump and the Republicans do not want to be in a situation where they are seen as preaching to the choir to the exclusion of gettable swing voters like those wayward Republicans. But the base-first strategy that Mr. Trump is most comfortable with — which his party has dutifully followed in races down the ballot — has not served him well.
In 2018, Republicans in Congressional races focused on a set of issues they assumed would drive up turnout in a party so thoroughly consumed by Mr. Trump’s issues and persona. From Ohio to California, they ran ads warning about criminal gangs and drugs invading the suburbs. Following the president’s lead, they pointed to a threatening caravan of immigrants across the southern border. Some invoked the image of Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem in their ads.
“It’s not clear that at any point since the 2016 election that strategy has worked, other than in some deep red states in Senate races,” said Nick Gourevitch the head of research for the Global Strategy Group, a Democratic firm. “He’s trying to recreate the exact circumstances of his 2016 victory,” Mr. Gourevitch said. “But the migrant caravan, all this stuff, they’ve tried it and it hasn’t worked.”