WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Faced with sliding poll numbers and multiple national crises, President Donald Trump has leaned into a familiar campaign strategy of divisive rhetoric and raucous rallies ahead of the November election. But a lot has changed in America since 2016.
Trump is juggling a pandemic that has killed more than 130,000 Americans, an economy that cratered after lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus, and a national uproar over racial injustice and police brutality after the death in May of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in police custody.
Enlivened by last week’s Mount Rushmore event in South Dakota, attended by a 7,500-strong crowd who welcomed his criticism of protesters nationwide, Trump told aides on Air Force One that he was eager to do more such events and take his message on the road, one adviser said.
On Friday, however, the campaign postponed a rally planned for Saturday evening in New Hampshire, a battleground state Trump lost to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. The White House cited Tropical Storm Fay, although rains were forecast to move out of the area by the afternoon.
The decision not to go comes after the crowd at a rally last month in Tulsa, Oklahoma, underwhelmed, leaving the arena only partly full. The event likely contributed to a rise in the number of coronavirus cases there, a local health official said on Wednesday. [ID:nL1N2EF2QM]
Some Republicans fear Trump’s unapologetic appeals to his loyal base will cost him moderate and independent voters and lead to a crushing defeat against Democrat Joe Biden in November.
But the president has bypassed some advisers by following his own instincts, several say. The adviser said the president believed his stance against the “angry mob” and the “radical left” would play well with voters.
“He wants to go back to what wins, which is law and order, America First, stopping the lawlessness,” he said.
Trump was elected in part by stoking racial and religious divisions, capturing the vote of independents by 7 points, older Americans by 13 points, white men without a college degree by 29 points, white college-educated men by 1 point, and white women by 13 points.
According to the Reuters Election Day poll in 2016, 26% of Trump’s voters were either first-time voters or had voted here for former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in 2012. Trump needs those voters again.
But there is a broad sense that this year is different, according to one former Trump adviser, “to everyone but him.” That is showing in the polls, where the Republican president is not only losing support from independents, but among white men, white women and senior citizens.
Several of Trump’s 2016 advisers have reached out to him in recent weeks to persuade him to abandon the rhetoric and instead lay out his plan for a second term, another source said. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sent a memo to the president last week to that end, according to that source. Christie did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump spent the past week stoking culture wars.
At Mount Rushmore and in a July 4 holiday address from the White House on Saturday, he assailed protesters for tearing down statues as part of the nationwide reckoning over racial inequality.
On Monday, he criticized NASCAR’s ban of the Confederate flag and said Black race-car driver Bubba Wallace should “apologize,” after an investigation into a noose discovered in his garage determined no crime was committed.
Trump’s rhetoric has undercut his most effective remaining strategy, according to a former White House official: painting Biden as too liberal.
“That’s all they’ve got left at the moment, with four months left in the campaign,” the former official said. “They’re down to the last play ... and they’re not playing it very well.”
“When times get tough for Trump, he goes back to his base,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “Nobody is going to cheer a lecture on the pandemic. But some people in his base will cheer the defense of Confederate statues.”
Trump continues to aim at what Republican Richard Nixon called the “silent majority” - defined during his successful 1968 presidential campaign as mostly middle-class, middle-aged white Americans in Middle America.
Trump first adopted here the term in 2016 and tweeted on Wednesday that the group was stronger than ever.
So far, polling numbers have shown a different story. From March to June, Biden increased support over Trump by 12 points among independents, according to Reuters/Ipsos data. Adults older than 55 gave Biden a 7-point advantage in support in June - a reversal from March, when they gave Trump a 3-point advantage.
The campaign had hoped to turn that around in New Hampshire. At Trump’s last rally there in February, before the coronavirus outbreak hit, 17 percent of the 53,000 tickets handed out were to people who did not vote in the last election and 25 percent were to Democrats, it said.
“These rallies are a perfect opportunity to remind voters of President Trump’s historic accomplishments,” said spokesman Hogan Gidley.
The White House said the rally would be rescheduled for a week or two from now.
Reporting by Jeff Mason and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw and Chris Kahn; Editing by Heather Timmons, Soyoung Kim, Peter Cooney and Sonya Hepinstall