With several polls showing Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden leading the U.S. presidential race nationally, in battleground states and among key demographics, President Donald Trump’s campaign is seeking a more effective strategy to win over voters.
After spending weeks pushing to reopen the economy, the president now appears to be acknowledging the coronavirus pandemic will continue to drive news cycles through the final 100 days of the campaign.
Here are a few key takeaways from Trump’s evolving re-election strategy.
Refocus on pandemic
Polls indicate that public approval for the president’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is falling to a new low — with just around one third of Americans supporting his approach which emphasizes reopening.
In the past two weeks, the president has returned to making regular appearances before journalists, putting himself forward as spokesperson for his administration’s response to the pandemic.
The president has canceled the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, Florida, because of the growing COVID-19 outbreak there. He also acknowledged that some schools may need to delay their reopening, and has recommended Americans wear masks in public.
Republican strategists say it’s an admission that the president has few options but to refocus his attention on the pandemic.
“It's really difficult as a campaign to focus on a message when there's nothing else you can talk about than what is on the minds of really of everybody in America,” said Chris Wilson, CEO of WPA Intelligence in an interview.
Staying “on message” is how politicians traditionally have helped build support for their causes, but Trump has long had a more freewheeling political style. On Monday this week he returned to his emphasis on ending the lockdowns in some states.
“I really do believe a lot of the governors should be opening up states that are not opening,” Trump said during a visit to a vaccine development facility in North Carolina. “We’ll see what happens with them.”
By Thursday, he again appeared to have reversed himself on the severity of the pandemic.
He suggested that the November elections should be delayed to ensure people can safely vote in person, even though the Constitution allows only Congress to schedule elections. Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders rejected the suggestion and vowed the election will be held as scheduled.
Renew push on vaccines and therapeutics
Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visited vaccine development facilities this week as the White House pressed its message that the nation is close to defeating COVID-19.
During a coronavirus press briefing on Wednesday, Trump said the U.S. is on track to “rapidly produce” 100 million doses as soon as a vaccine is approved “which could be very, very soon.” He said 500 million doses will be available “shortly thereafter.”
There are currently more than 100 scientific groups around the world trying to make vaccines, including Pfizer and BioNTech which have started large-scale trials in the United States. But most experts agree that having a safe and reliable vaccine available before the November election is unlikely.
“There is progress on a number of fronts,” said William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “We're optimistic, but everything has to go well in vaccine development.”
While a vaccine is under development, the president is still pushing other treatments aimed at reducing the severity of COVID-19. This week he again championed hydroxychloroquine — an anti-malaria drug that Trump and his allies have been pushing as a COVID-19 treatment.
So far there is no evidence that hydroxychloroquine helps to prevent COVID-19 infection, said former Food and Drug Associate Commissioner and co-founder of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, Peter Pitts. However Pitts told VOA recent studies have shown that it may help shorten hospital time for patients who suffer from serious manifestations of the virus.
Analysts say that Trump advisers see messaging on vaccines and therapeutics as the quickest way to restore confidence in the president.
“The plan is to present certain drugs that are unproven as useful therapeutics until they have a vaccine,” said Larry Sabato from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics to VOA.
Sabato said the lack of scientific data to support the claim is immaterial. “For Trump supporters, he is their source of information.”
Continue “law and order” approach to US protests
With Black Lives Matter rallies and protests continuing in many cities across the United States, the vast majority of them peaceful, the president has also sharpened his attacks on what he has called “radical left anarchists” and the danger they allegedly pose to the country.
“This bloodshed must end, this bloodshed will end,” Trump said.
In Portland, local officials blamed the presence of federal law enforcement officers for worsening conflicts with protesters. After days of clashes, the city struck an agreement for the federal troops to withdraw.
But analysts see the larger standoff continuing, with the Trump campaign arguing that cities with regular protests are in fact in chaos and need a “law and order” commander in chief, said Omar Wasow, a professor of race and ethnic politics at Princeton University.
“Trump is working in a tradition that we've seen internationally, of using conflict as a way to try and mobilize your side,” Wasow told VOA, pointing to Trump campaign advertisements using footage of the protests to portray Biden as soft on crime.
“Clearly, they think it's a good campaign issue for them,” Wasow said.
Settle on a Biden Strategy
Traditionally, presidential campaigns kick into high gear and intensify attacks on their opponents after the Republican and Democratic conventions in August, and as the candidates meet on the debate stage.
“Biden has his share of controversies and he's been around a long time, but he is not a clear image in the minds of most voters,” said Larry Sabato. “Trump's goal in the debates and in his advertising, is to dirty up Biden, to make him appear as unsavory as Donald Trump appears to be unsavory to millions of people.”
So far there are two main attack themes; that “Sleepy Joe” Biden is mentally unfit to be president and that he won’t keep Americans safe against crime and lawlessness.
A recent poll finds that 52% of voters are somewhat confident that Biden has the mental and physical stamina to carry out the job of president compared to 45% for Trump. However, more are likely to say they feel very confident about Trump (33%) than Biden (23%).
“Biden hasn’t developed the kind of adulation among his base that Trump can count on from his supporters. This seems to be a fairly common trend in the campaign so far and is at least partly due to the Democrat being out of the public eye during the pandemic,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
But the strategy of a 74-year-old incumbent attacking his 77-year-old challenger is risky particularly among seniors, a key demographic group of Trump supporters. Biden leads Trump among voters 65 and older in several national polls.
At the same time, Trump seeks to link Biden to more liberal elements of the Democratic Party such as the “defund the police” movement. Biden has said he supports redirecting some police funding to address mental health or to change the prison system.
Joe Biden says police have "BECOME THE ENEMY" and calls for CUTTING police funding: "Yes, absolutely!" pic.twitter.com/PKXvz3zobe— Trump War Room - Text TRUMP to 88022 (@TrumpWarRoom) July 8, 2020
The gambit is part of Trump’s larger “culture war” against what he describes as a push by American political liberals to wage a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.”
Another attack line likely to pick up steam closer to the election is to raise fears about what a “Biden, Pelosi, Schumer America will look like,” said Arizona-based Republican strategist Chuck Coughlin to VOA, referring to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“The European style of democracy has historically been unpopular across the U.S. and I believe he will begin to compare how a Biden presidency will change America for the worse forever, and that he is the only man left to defend American-style capitalism,” Coughlin said.
Campaigning on “us vs them” to a nation highly polarized around party ideology can be a very powerful way to mobilize your base, said Omar Wasow of Princeton. But while Trump is masterful at harnessing identity politics, stoking both fear and national pride, his political base in 2020 may not be large enough to carry him to victory. “If he doesn't do some outreach to some of the moderate swing voters, there's a reasonable chance he'll lose,” Wasow said.
The past three months of national turmoil have shown much can happen between now and the election.
“An October vaccine discovery would be the ultimate October surprise,” said Wilson, referring to the possibility that a last-minute development will sway the early November election. “If unemployment dips back into single digits, if you have the Dow above 30,000 — all those things would create and completely change the scenario of what we'd be looking at in the fall.”
Wilson said that any of those scenarios can happen, and it would probably take a combination of them to ensure a Trump victory. “But that's historically the case with any presidential election.”