Trump's Narrow, Fractured Campaign Focus Already Seems Inadequate for Reelection | Opinion

A slew of national polls has revealed a serious deterioration of President Trump's standing with voters. More ominously, respected polls in key battleground states show the president trailing by large margins. As of right now, the presidential race is threatening to be one sided enough so as to put the Republican Senate majority in jeopardy.

The president's campaign has not effectively responded to the changing issue mix that now animates voters' concerns. The time is long past when the president can tout the good economic numbers of last year. Rather, voters are concerned about the continuing spread of the coronavirus, the civil unrest across the country and what most Americans see as deteriorating race relations in America.

The Administration has not developed plans to grapple with these thorny issues. Rather, they have attempted to highlight matters most important to the president's base voters, matters which thus far have not been embraced by the larger American electorate. Winning national campaigns must fashion messages that appeal to both base and centrist voters. The president appears to be speaking only to the former.

The coronavirus is catching its second wind, this time in Sun Belt states where the president has retained popularity. The current policy of shifting blame to others—the World Health Organization, Democratic governors, and especially China, has fallen short of satisfying parents and workers concerned with a virus that has not yet been brought under control.

Let's be clear: China is not popular in the US, first for its trade policies and now because of the virus that began there and whose government was less than transparent about its origins. The problem is that the president in the past has had plenty of good things to say about China including this from just a few months ago:

"China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American people, I want to thank President Xi (Twitter January 24)."

Further, conservative stalwart John Bolton's explosive book highlights instances of Trump cajoling the Chinese to help his reelection campaign by purchasing additional agricultural products from the US. All this makes the current anti-China message far too muddled to break through as a winning issue and insufficient as a response to the still raging virus in the US.

Second is the President's "law and order" rhetoric. Again, it is true that wide majorities of Americans disapprove of violent protests and efforts to neuter America's past by toppling statues, the left's version of book burning. However, the public also holds the incumbent responsible for civil unrest. As a challenger in 2016, Trump was free to opine on the need for respect for the law. As an incumbent, he is judged negatively for the deteriorating civil discourse and social unrest.

It is true that in 1968, Richard Nixon ran a successful campaign focusing on a law and order theme. However the blame for the rioting at that time fell to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson and his vice president and Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey. A quarter of a century later, in 1992, the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King episode badly hurt President George H.W. Bush as Bill Clinton stressed over and over again that civil order was the main responsibility of any president. The lesson is clear: it is the incumbent who is held responsible for failure to maintain civil order.

In a third line of attack, the president has gone after Vice President Biden with a sharp attack on Biden's age, supposed incoherence and verbal gaffes. One ad says the 77 year old vice president is "too old" and notes that "geriatric mental health is no laughing matter."

Thus far, both candidates have done limited campaigning because of coronavirus, a big break for Biden. However, the Trump plan is to build on this line in the upcoming presidential debates where the president will be looking for weak performances by Mr. Biden. There is some hope here, as Biden's primary debate efforts were uneven at best. However, this line of attack also lowers the bar for how voters perceive Biden's performances. If he passes the "senility" test, voters could conclude that he is capable of running the country. That is critical because national surveys also show a strong desire for a return to some variety of "normalcy" at the national level, something that Biden, a veteran of many years in Washington, could provide.

There is very little here that would make large groups of voters switch from Biden to Trump. Rather, these lines of attack are designed to solidify a base that has always been with him. Yet what is the winning message to the larger electorate?
Polls show that public health, civil order and race relations are on the voters' minds. There are alternate strategies still available. He could, as Lindsay Graham has suggested, talk more about a governing agenda for a second term and speak of specific policies to appeal to centrist voters including suburban and college educated women. He could focus on strategies to make voters feel safer as America reopens its economy and sends its children back to school. And of course, a national address on racial reconciliation is always a good moral and political option.

But these appear unlikely. The presidential course is set. He will dance with the ones that brung him—for better or worse.

Frank Donatelli served as assistant for political affairs to President Reagan and as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​