His daily news briefings on the coronavirus outbreak are inflicting grave damage on his political standing, Republicans believe, and his recent remarks about combating the virus with sunlight and disinfectant were a breaking point for a number of senior party officials.
On Friday evening, Trump conducted only a short briefing and took no questions, a format that a senior administration official said was being discussed as the best option for the president going forward.
Glen Bolger, a longtime Republican pollster, said the landscape for his party had become far grimmer compared with the pre-virus plan to run almost singularly around the country’s prosperity.
“With the economy in free-fall, Republicans face a very challenging environment, and it’s a total shift from where we were a few months ago,” Bolger said. “Democrats are angry, and now we have the foundation of the campaign yanked out from underneath us.”
Trump’s advisers and allies have often blamed external events for his most self-destructive acts, such as his repeated outbursts during the two-year investigation into his campaign’s dealings with Russia. Now there is no such explanation — and, so far, there have been exceedingly few successful interventions regarding Trump’s behaviour at the podium.
Representative Tom Cole, a Republican, said the president had to change his tone and offer more than a campaign of grievance.
“You got to have some hope to sell people,” Cole said. “But Trump usually sells anger, division and ‘we’re the victim.'”
There are still more than six months until the election, and many Republicans are hoping that the dynamics of the race will shift once Biden is thrust back into the campaign spotlight. At that point, they believe, the race will not simply be the up-or-down referendum on the president it is now, and Trump will be able to more effectively sell himself as the person to rebuild the economy.
“We built the greatest economy in the world; I’ll do it a second time,” Trump said earlier this month, road-testing a theme he will deploy in the coming weeks.
Still, a recent wave of polling has fuelled Republican anxieties, as Biden leads in virtually every competitive state.
The surveys also showed Republican senators in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Maine trailing or locked in a dead heat with potential Democratic rivals — in part because their fate is linked to Trump’s job performance.
If incumbents in those states lose and Republicans pick up only the Senate seat in Alabama, Democrats would take control of the chamber should Biden win the presidency.
“He’s got to run very close for us to keep the Senate,” Charles Black, a veteran Republican consultant, said of Trump. “I’ve always thought we were favoured to, but I can’t say that now with all these cards up in the air.”
Republicans were taken aback this past week by the results of a 17-state survey commissioned by the Republican National Committee. It found the president struggling in the Electoral College battlegrounds and likely to lose without signs of an economic rebound this fall, according to a party strategist outside the RNC who is familiar with the poll’s results.
The Trump campaign’s own surveys have also shown an erosion of support, according to four people familiar with the data, as the coronavirus remains the No. 1 issue worrying voters.
Polling this early is, of course, not determinative: In 2016 Hillary Clinton also enjoyed a wide advantage in many states well before November.
Yet Trump’s best hope to win a state he lost in 2016, Minnesota, also seems increasingly challenging. A Democratic survey taken by Senator Tina Smith showed the president trailing by 10 percentage points there, according to a Democratic strategist who viewed the poll.
The private data of the two parties is largely mirrored by public surveys. Just last week, three Pennsylvania polls and two Michigan surveys were released showing Trump losing outside the margin of error. And a pair of Florida polls were released that showed Biden enjoying a slim advantage in a state that is all but essential for Republicans to retain the presidency.
To some in the party, this feels all too similar to the last time they held the White House.
In 2006, anger at President George W. Bush and unease with the Iraq War propelled Democrats to reclaim Congress; two years later they captured the presidency thanks to the same anti-incumbent themes and an unexpected crisis that accelerated their advantage: the economic collapse of 2008. The two elections were effectively a single continuous rejection of Republican rule — as some in the GOP fear 2018 and 2020 could become in a worst-case scenario.
“It already feels very similar to the 2008 cycle,” said Billy Piper, a Republican lobbyist and former chief of staff to Senator Mitch McConnell.
Significant questions remain that could tilt the outcome of this election: whether Americans experience a second wave of the virus in the fall, the condition of the economy and how well Biden performs after he emerges from his Wilmington, Delaware, basement, which many in his party are privately happy to keep him in so long as Trump is fumbling as he governs amid a crisis.
But if Republicans are comforted by the uncertainties that remain, they are alarmed by one element of this election that is already abundantly clear: The small-dollar fundraising energy Democrats enjoyed in the mid-terms has not abated.
Most of the incumbent House Democrats facing competitive races enjoy a vast financial advantage over Republican challengers, who are struggling to garner attention as the virus overwhelms news coverage.
The New York Times