Trump’s emerging turnaround strategy: Focus on voters’ fears about crime, immigration and China

President Donald Trump and his top aides are planning to rev up their campaign machine in the coming days with an aggressive focus on voters’ perceived fears about crime, China and immigration — invoking parts of their successful 2016 strategy as they try to regain ground lost in recent months.

Beset by poor polling in key states such as Arizona, Ohio, Florida and Georgia, the campaign intends to attack former Vice President Joe Biden far more vociferously and hopes to cast Democrats as too far to the left of swing voters, according to five people familiar with the planning. Some progressives’ calls to “defund the police” also will figure prominently into the campaign this week as a way to paint the Democratic ticket as too liberal for centrist and independent voters, an official said.

“They will draw a very clear contrast between Biden, Pelosi, Schumer and where Trump would take the country,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime Trump ally. “When Democrats run out and say we want to defund the police but not really, well, we’ll let Biden explain where he is on that issue.”

On Monday, the Trump campaign started rolling out the more aggressive tactics by lambasting liberals who want to defund police departments and divert some of that money to other community programs. The campaign hosted a call with reporters about that idea and issued two statements on Biden and policing. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany also countered the liberal movement with comments in support of police during her afternoon press briefing.

The Biden campaign on Monday said he was not in favor of defunding the police and instead favored reforms such as funding community policy programs and the use of officers wearing body cameras.

Trump allies fear the election is now shaping up as a simple referendum on Trump and his performance in the White House — with recent polling showing Trump losing ground with noneducated white voters, senior citizens, Catholics and evangelicals. With Biden formally clinching the nomination last week, the Trump campaign wants to focus attention more on Biden and away from Trump personally. “As Sleepy Joe starts venturing outside the basement, he will have a rude awakening,” said Jason Miller, a new adviser on the Trump reelection campaign, who also worked on the 2016 campaign as a senior communications adviser.

With only five months until the general election, Trump and his top aides realize they need to take drastic action to both shore up his support with the base and improve his standing with other voters in several key states the campaign had assumed were safe. The Trump campaign boasts a giant war chest from fundraising and an extensive staff and digital operation. But donors, conservative activists and former campaign officials have been dismayed by the strategy and messaging coming out of the campaign in recent months as the economy tanked and Trump struggled to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. Political advisers have also complained about the lack of coordination between the Trump campaign, White House, outside allies and advisers and various Republican-backed groups.

The campaign intends to play up the recent drop in joblessness nationally, a trend line officials say plays to Trump’s strength as the candidate best suited to handle an economic recovery — even if the unemployment rate still exceeds anything seen during the Great Recession.

Trump himself has grown frustrated by the negative polling in recent weeks, confounded by Biden’s lead and frustrated by his own campaign actions and execution of strategy during the pandemic. The president is increasingly nostalgic about his 2016 race and the team that led him to victory — much the way a man pines for an ex without remembering all of the relationship’s flaws, joked one Republican close to the White House. An incumbent’s campaign is inherently different than an upstart one, the Republican added, but Trump remains fixated on the 2016 win, those aides and those messages.

One Trump campaign official argued the revival of 2016 themes comes in part from Democrats nominating another long-standing Washington politician — posing similar vulnerabilities that hurt Hillary Clinton, they argue. The Trump campaign continues to portray Trump an insurgent candidate — even as he has served as president for 3½ years and bent almost all of the Republican Party to his agenda.

The return to a more aggressive, attack-dog posture fits with both the 2016 nostalgia and a recognition that the Trump campaign needs to radically reshape perceptions about Trump in the coming months. The latest polling showed devastating trends for Trump’s approval rating in recent months and widespread concern across party lines about the country’s direction.

“The election doesn’t occur until about five months from now. Five months ago was before a pandemic, before racial unrest, before an economic collapse and before impeachment,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster. “That helps to put into perspective just how far we have to go before the election. Five months may not seem like a lot to many people, but it is a couple of light years in political terms especially with the speed of online communication these days.”

Part of the Trump campaign’s new strategy included bringing Miller onto the campaign and naming Bill Stepien as deputy campaign manager, elevating an operative who has much stronger grounding in the state-by-state mechanics of politics than the campaign manager, Brad Parscale, who made his name with digital expertise in the 2016 campaign.

Miller has a close relationship with Trump dating back to the 2016 camp when he was the first staffer every morning to talk to Trump and go through the day’s messaging. Miller is a rare aide in Trump world who can speak to the president candidly and deliver bad news when needed.

One of the campaign’s challenges in the coming weeks will be improving Trump’s support with senior citizens. Biden now leads among that demographic, which has been disproportionately hit by Covid-19.

“Trump had a tough period, with an economic depression, worldwide pandemic and then all of the reactions to George Floyd,” Gingrich said. “As that all balances out and we get back to a choice, my guess is Trump will recover and he will end up beating Biden by a shocking margin. I think that will be obvious by mid-September.”

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