WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As President Donald Trump’s support in the U.S. suburbs erodes amid concerns about his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, he has returned to a familiar campaign theme: trying to scare voters away from backing Democrat Joe Biden in November.
From deploying federal agents to confront protesters in cities such as Portland, Oregon, to releasing ads portraying a lawless and dangerous America under a Biden presidency, Trump has positioned himself as the candidate who will keep the country safe.
But Reuters/Ipsos polling this month shows white suburban Americans are far more worried about the economy and healthcare than crime, a sign that Trump’s strategy could be at odds with the priorities of the critical voting bloc he narrowly won in 2016 and must win back to secure a second term.
Asked what is “the most important problem facing the United States today,” 21% said the economy and 21% said healthcare. Only 6% said crime, according to the July 15-21 national opinion poll, which included 1,603 U.S. adults who identified as white and living in the suburbs.
But concern about COVID-19 and Trump’s management of it ran deep.
Among white Americans in the suburbs, 81% said they were personally concerned about the spread of the virus. Forty-one percent of those suburban white Americans approved of the way Trump has handled the coronavirus, down 12 points from a similar poll that ran in March.
While 42% of all Americans thought Biden would be better at dealing with COVID-19 compared with 33% who said Trump was better, white suburban Americans were more closely split over which candidate was better equipped to lead the nation out of the crisis, with 40% saying Trump and 38% saying Biden.
The data suggests Trump, who trails Biden in national polls, could shore up his support in the suburbs and improve his chances of winning the Nov. 3 election with stronger leadership on the health and economic crises rather than doubling down on assertions that the country would be less safe with Biden in the White House.
“His law-and-order message seems more geared towards resuscitating his base than winning over swing suburbanites,” said Dave Wasserman, a non-partisan analyst with the Cook Political Report. “There is no way Trump can win the election unless he turns around his numbers on the handling of COVID.”
‘EXTREMELY MOVING ISSUE’
The Republican president’s advisers insist his tough-on-crime message resonates with suburban voters after months of protests over racial injustice and police brutality against Black Americans and calls from progressives to “defund” the police.
“The violence, the lawlessness, is sickening. This is what Joe Biden and the Democrats stand for,” said Rick Gorka, a senior member of the Republican National Committee and part of Trump’s re-election campaign. “Our data shows this is an extremely moving issue, especially with suburban voters and those that are undecided.”
Gorka, who declined to share the data, said the president had been involved in the messaging and ad strategy.
Biden does not support defunding police departments. Yet one Trump campaign television ad that portrays an older woman being attacked by burglars while she waits on hold trying to call emergency services ends with the slogan: “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
“Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream,” Trump said in a tweet directed to “Suburban Housewives of America” last week. “I will preserve it, and make it even better!”
In his latest bid for suburban support, Trump said on Wednesday his administration was rescinding an Obama-era regulation aimed at combating discriminatory housing practices and segregation.
Critics attacked the move, with Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren describing it as “racist fear-mongering.”
Trump’s focus on fear echoes his 2016 campaign, when he depicted immigrants from Mexico as criminals. This time around, he warns of “anarchists and agitators” whom he says Democratic-led cities have been unable to control.
Oregon’s governor said on Wednesday the federal government had agreed to withdraw agents from Portland, while the Justice Department said it would send law enforcement officials to Cleveland, Milwaukee and Detroit - all in crucial battleground states - in an expansion of a separate program aimed at curtailing a surge of violent crime in some cities.
Kyle Kondik, a non-partisan analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, believes Trump ordered federal police into Portland “to create scary images for suburban voters.”
“But it’s kind of beside the point. In order for the message to resonate, it needs to feel more relevant to more people,” Kondik added.
WINNING THE BASE, TOUGHER SELL IN SUBURBS
According to Reuters/Ipsos polling, Trump’s net approval in the suburbs declined by 17 percentage points from March to July as the coronavirus swept the country. Biden leads Trump by 11 points in the suburbs, up from a 6-point advantage four months ago.
Trump is “stoking confrontation and conflict” to divert Americans’ attention from his failed leadership on the pandemic, Biden spokesman TJ Ducklo said. “Clearly Americans aren’t buying it.”
Trump’s response to the anti-racism demonstrations was viewed favorably by Republicans in a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted on Monday and Tuesday, with 78% saying they approved, up from 67% in mid-June.
Suburban voters were more suspicious of his motives. Some 44% of suburban Americans said they thought the federal agents were being used for political purposes, while 37% thought they were mostly there to restore law and order.
Mary Aponte, 38, a mother in suburban Bucks County, Pennsylvania, said she was not a Trump supporter but agreed police need support and criminals should face consequences.
“I fear for what will happen in major cities if we get Biden in office when it comes to the police,” she said, adding she remained conflicted about her choice in November because she also has sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Tricia Kalmar, a 45-year-old suburban mother in Delaware, Ohio, said she did not think Trump’s law-and-order messaging would work in her community.
“I don’t feel like any of the moms here feel threatened by the protests,” said Kalmar, who voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 but has also regularly voted for Republicans. “Even those who don’t support the protests, they are not concerned about their safety here in the suburbs.”
Reporting by Tim Reid; Additional reporting by Chris Kahn, Steve Holland and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney
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