Lifelong Republicans may not like him, but President Donald Trump thinks they’ll show up when it matters on Election Day to stop Democrats from taking the White House.
His inner circle and family members firmly believe that he has the correct read on the electorate. Trump’s instincts led to a win four years ago, to the surprise of the political establishment, and he insists there will be a red wave now.
“We continue to say every night the same thing: It feels like 2016 all over again,” Lara Trump, a senior campaign adviser said of conversations with her husband Eric, who is the president’s middle son. “It feels like the media is missing it again. It feels like the polls are wrong again.”
The president has consistently struggled in polling and allies worry he is turning off voters again with grievance-filled speeches that fixate on real or perceived slights against him. They have counseled Trump to convince voters who are predisposed to supporting his policies by focusing on issues such as the economy.
Trump appears to have recently incorporated their advice into his approach, drawing a vivid contrast at his rallies between himself and Democrat Joe Biden in the home stretch of the campaign.
The Trump family, top surrogates and the president himself have been pummeling battleground states with appearances that are designed to surge in-person voting next Tuesday to overcome Democrats’ early edge in absentee and mail-in ballots.
While the president amps up his base, squadrons of door-knocking volunteers are stressing the Trump administration’s track record on conservative issues such as tax cuts, judicial confirmations and the successful appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court to traditional Republicans.
“They have voted for their entire lives based on a certain issue set and the exact accomplishments President Trump’s administration have achieved,” Nick Trainer, the campaign’s director of battleground strategy, said. “We made the same calculus in 2016 down the home stretch that policy — and now, his successful record in his first term — is what’s going to get those folks to cast their ballots for the president.”
Trump’s campaign is banking on a high turnout on Election Day by Republican voters, including those who are registered with the party but don’t always cast a ballot, in swing states that Trump won four years ago.
Campaign officials believe that Democrats were mistaken to place a heavy emphasis on mail-in and absentee voting, based on the number of Democratic voters who requested ballots but have so far failed to return them.
“Republicans tend to have a heavier Election Day vote than Democrats, and this cycle, it’ll be that on steroids,” Trainer said. “The bet that Democrats made in trying to push so much of their vote to mail is a really risky one.”
The Trump campaign is basing its turnout models on the number of Republicans telling them in polls, surveys and in person that they plan to vote on Election Day. It estimates that Democrats, who did not knock doors for much of the pandemic, are not chasing absentee and mail-in ballots as aggressively as they need to be.
Democrats dispute that characterization. Biden’s camp says it encouraged people to make a plan to vote and stressed early and in-person options.
Trump may be overestimating his own support, warned David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida who is currently registered with no party affiliation.
Republicans who did not vote four years ago or reluctantly cast a ballot for Trump are not going to rescue him, Jolly said. If anything, they are mulling a vote for Biden.
“He’s trying to find new Trump voters that see the world through his thread from 2016 to 2020, and they’re just not there,” Jolly said. “This is not a president who’s added to his coalition since 2016.”
Trump believes he can dilute support for Biden by sowing doubt about his character in the same way that he did with Hillary Clinton in 2016. In addition to efforts to undermine confidence in Biden’s ability to govern, Trump is continuing his constant attacks on Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, over his business dealings with Ukraine. Joe Biden has called it a “smear campaign” and warned of “disinformation from the Russians.”
The Biden family is one of Trump’s favorite topics at rallies, where his speeches are heavy on complaints about mail-in voting, the media, impeachment, Clinton and an assortment of other Democrats who have loudly criticized him.
“This president seems to have a skill for knowing what people like to hear about him. He tends to go in that direction,” Lara Trump said of her father-in-law’s approach.
The president’s outside advisers have been increasingly vocal in the final weeks of the campaign, however, about the need for Trump to spend more time in his public appearances on issues that directly affect voters.
“I get a call from all the experts,” Trump said at a rally in Tampa on Thursday. “‘Sir, you shouldn’t be speaking about Hunter. You shouldn’t be saying bad things about Biden, because nobody cares.’ I disagree. Maybe that’s why I’m here and they’re not. But they say talk about your economic success.”
Recognizing that Trump will never abandon his style or leave alone what former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called “grievance issues,” Trump’s allies have urged him to draw a sharper contrast on policy issues with Biden in his freewheeling remarks at rallies.
Trump campaign advisory board member Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state, said he encouraged Trump to appeal to suburban women with public safety messaging and provide examples of why he cannot retreat from public events during the pandemic, such as the U.S.-brokered agreements normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel and other countries in the Middle East.
“You’re not going to get him where he doesn’t weave in a grievance,” Blackwell said. “You just have to accept that he’s going to integrate that with some grievances and what his gut tells him he needs to hammer.”
Jason Miller, a senior advisor to the campaign, told reporters on Monday that Trump would focus on both the economy and the Biden family in his closing argument to voters, in addition to Barrett and the Supreme Court.
The Republican Party, meanwhile, is trying to appeal to late deciders and wavering Trump voters with a message that he will lower their taxes, deregulate businesses and implement an energy independence plan if reelected.
“There’s a lot of voters who aren’t as dialed in as you think, because we’ve been in this for so long. And there are voters who are busy, who are just saying, ‘They’re the same all, all politicians are the same, what difference does it make to me?’” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in an interview. “Getting to those voters and showing them the difference could be the key to victory in some states.”
Allies of the president have long warned that the election is riding on Trump’s ability to bring right-of-center voters out to the polls.
They are hopeful that Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court will serve as a motivator for conservatives to cast a ballot for Trump again, now that he has made good on his pledge to fill the seat.
Recent adjustments to Trump’s campaigning style do appear to be helping him win over more of his party’s voters.
Republican support for Trump has increased from mid-80 percent over the summer to about 90 percent in surveys conducted by the Club for Growth in swing states and battleground congressional districts this fall, said David McIntosh, president of the organization that promotes fiscal conservatism.
But Trump’s backing from Republican voters in polls has not reached the 95 percent support that Biden has achieved from Democrats, he said.
Coronavirus remains the number one issue for voters. The economy and safety and security are close behind, McIntosh said.
Messaging that promotes law and order, gun rights and crackdowns on riots energizes existing Trump supporters, McIntosh said, but suburban voters are more concerned with local issues like quick response times when they dial 911 for emergencies and the police having the personnel and resources to respond to potential crises like school shootings.
“Both could work very well for a Republican and Trump talking about when you defund the police you jeopardize these important services that we depend on,” he said. “But it hasn’t been framed that way so much at the national level.”
Trump won his first presidential election with just 88 percent of Republican support in exit polling. He lost 8 percent of Republicans in 2016 but picked up 8 percent of Democrats, exit polls showed.
Democrats have been emphasizing the Trump administration’s approach to the pandemic and health care in their outreach to Republican voters, especially in suburbs of battleground states. They are also seeking to win over Republicans in blue-collar areas who are unhappy with Trump’s trade and manufacturing policies and historically conservative voters concerned with Trump’s temperament.
“Those disaffected Republicans are a real and significant group, and they’re particularly predominant in suburban areas in key battleground states,” said David Bergstein, director of the Democratic National Committee’s battleground state communications. “And they are a very important part of the coalition that is going to elect Democrats this cycle, because they’ve really been turned off by the way Trump has handled both the issue of health care and the coronavirus crisis.”
Republican strategist Sarah Longwell said Trump has experienced significant attrition in focus groups she conducted of voters who backed him in 2016 and are frustrated with his presidency.
They want to know what he’s going to do to get the coronavirus under control and see the details of his long promised health care plan, she said.
“Trump has not been able to hold on to people who held their nose and voted for him in 2016,” said Longwell, who founded the anti-Trump organization Republican Voters Against Trump.
Beth Hansen, a Republican who managed former Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential campaign and is a partner at the strategic consulting firm Kasich Company, said there is nothing Trump can do at this point in the election to win back Republicans who were concerned by his raucous performance at the first presidential debate and the sparring during the NBC town hall.
“He can’t. That window has been closed to him. And he did some of the closing,” Hansen said.