Though it is still 141 days from the November 3 election, the polls of the moment look grim for Trump. He continues to struggle with female voters
, many of whom are exhausted by his divisive tone and punitive tweets. Biden is posting double-digit leads in national polls while campaigning (mostly) from his basement in the midst of the pandemic.
And Trump’s self-inflicted errors in the weeks since George Floyd’s death — from the administration’s clearing of Lafayette Square for Trump’s bible-wielding photo-op
to the President’s tone-deaf assertion that he can fix
systematic racism in America quickly and easily — made even some Republicans wince.
But Trump proved in 2016 that he is smarter than most people think about electoral strategy. In interviews with both Republican and Democratic strategists this past week there was near unanimity that no one can predict how an issue like racial injustice will play out in November — especially when American lives and livelihoods are on the line during a pandemic and a frightening economic collapse.
Strategists from both parties also noted that Democrats are playing a dangerous game if they believe Trump’s inflammatory tweets and threats will cost him the election (a miscalculation some Democrats made in 2016).
While the President has been widely criticized for vilifying protesters, calling on governors to dominate demonstrators in the streets and for hammering his “law and order” message, Democrats may be equally at risk of overplaying their hand as pressure mounts from activists on the left to slash police budgets or “defund the police;” as Minneapolis moves to disband
its police department; and as protesters occupy
the area around Seattle’s East Precinct.
“Here’s the good news for Trump, Republicans are going to be far more tolerant of police reforms than Democrats will be in terms of embracing the cops — the idea that they’re not the enemy,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Joe Biden’s problem is — how do you embrace law and order with a very militant base?” Graham said. Noting the controversy over disbanding police departments around the country as a counterpoint to Trump’s current polling deficit among female voters, he added: “I think most people, but particularly women with kids in charge of a family, want to pick up the phone and have a cop on the other end and not a social worker.”
Trump tried to channel a similar public safety message in the lead up to the 2018 midterms when he stoked fears about “migrant caravans” that he claimed were coming across the border and endangering Americans, while promising a “law and order” response.
Whether Trump’s calls for a law-and-order approach will resonate in November remains unclear.
Recent poll numbers point to the paradox of the current moment. A Pew Research Center survey
released last week showed that two-thirds of US adults now say they support the Black Lives Matter movement. And six in 10 American adults said they believe Trump’s response to the protests has been wrong
But on the flip side, the new ABC News-Ipsos poll
showed that 64% of Americans oppose the effort to “defund the police” with 60% stating that they do not support reducing police department budgets and reallocating the money for mental health, housing and education programs.
The former vice president said last Monday that he does not support
the calls by some activists to defund the police, but Republicans still see an opportunity to criticize Biden on that issue, in part because he said he supports “conditioning federal aid to police” based on whether departments can “meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness.”
Biden’s challenge in the months ahead will be finding common ground within a Democratic Party that is already showing deep divisions about how to rectify racial injustice following Floyd’s death. One of Trump’s key strengths is that his core supporters are enthusiastic about his reelection campaign, which may give him wide latitude to broker a GOP compromise on police reform issues.
Trump allies are increasingly playing up his work
on sentencing reform as a possible precursor to measures that could rein in police officers who Trump views as “bad apples.” In the President’s interview with Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner last week, he also signaled his disapproval
of police chokeholds — a policy area where there could be bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill.
While many Americans were shocked by the images of authorities pushing back
peaceful protesters from the White House with chemical irritants and flash bangs, the President’s allies believe his law-and-order message has resonated with Americans who were also shocked by images of shattered windows along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, burning police cars and boarded up storefronts in cities where the plywood has yet to come down.
All of that suggests that there may still be a middle path here for the President as the nation contemplates the next steps in the criminal justice reform conversation. CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins reported
that a number of Trump’s advisers, from White House aides to members of Congress to corporate executives, have encouraged the President to adjust his tone and meet the moment.
Trump seemed to take a step in that direction Friday night when he said he would reschedule a campaign rally
that was slated to take place in Tulsa on Juneteenth, the day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
Beyond Trump’s harsh and dismissive comments about the demonstrations against racial injustice — and his apparent failure to grasp the depth of America’s racial inequities — the decision to hold the rally
in Tulsa was seen as a major affront because of the city’s history as the site of one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the nation’s history: the 1921 massacre
of hundreds of African Americans who were attacked by a white mob.
Trump said he was delaying the rally to show respect
for Juneteenth — a sign he might be listening to some of the advisers pleading with him to change his tone.
But hours later, he was ready to wade back into the culture wars when he seemed to suggest in a Saturday tweet that he would no longer watch the NFL
if the league condones players taking a knee while the national anthem is played.
His next move is anyone’s guess.