When cities and towns erupted in protests this summer after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on the neck of a Black man until he stopped breathing, President Trump seized on a familiar Republican theme to boost his reelection campaign.
“I am your law-and-order president,” he declared.
Trump blamed the spreading disorder on “protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters [and] lowlifes.” He sent federal law enforcement agents and National Guard troops into city streets, and claimed that if Joe Biden wins the presidency, “no city, town or suburb will be safe.”
Shortly before she resigned last month, one of the president’s advisors, Kellyanne Conway, even observed — perhaps too candidly — that street violence was good for the president’s campaign.
At first, it looked as if Trump had found a potent message. Voters told pollsters they were increasingly worried about the urban clashes. Biden, thrown on the defensive, protested that he’s against violence too, but Trump derided his response as weak.
But nothing happened: The two candidates’ standing with voters didn’t budge.
Before George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25, Biden stood at 49% in national polls against 43% for Trump, according to the average calculated by the website FiveThirtyEight. This week, the numbers were 51% for Biden and 44% for Trump — virtually unchanged.
“Law and order,” it turned out, was no magic bullet.
On Monday, a Trump advisor told Reuters that the president’s campaign will focus on the economy for the final weeks of the campaign — a tacit admission that his earlier message wasn’t working.
Trump appears to have miscalculated in several ways.
First, campaign strategists and pollsters say, law and order never rose to become the top issue on most voters’ minds — not even when violent protests erupted in Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wis.
In most polls, Trump’s bungling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 195,000 Americans, and widespread unemployment still ranked above fears of the mostly peaceful protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
“People want to know what you’re going to do to defeat the virus, and then how you’re going to get America working,” Republican pollster David Winston told me.
If a candidate hasn’t answered those questions clearly, he said, undecided voters aren’t going to focus on anything less important to their lives.
Second, Trump misunderstood what the public wanted a president to do when widespread protests against police misconduct spawned sporadic violence.
The president was correct in his view that most voters in both parties reject disorder and want to see it end.
But in the eyes of most Americans, Trump wasn’t offering constructive solutions, as a survey released last week by the polling firm YouGov showed.
When voters were asked whether Trump “made things better” when he talked about race, 52% of voters said he had made the situation worse.
That’s not only Democrats talking; about 1 in 7 people who voted for Trump in 2016 said they think the president has made race relations worse.
Asked whether they believe a second Trump term will produce more violence or less, 53% said more. Only 30% said they believed a Biden presidency would result in more violence.
In short, most voters think the president has become part of the problem, not part of the solution.
His law-and-order pitch did appeal to one group of voters: those who already back him.
As my colleague Noah Bierman found on a visit to one of the Pennsylvania counties that delivered the state to Trump four years ago, many of the president’s supporters like what he was saying.
“There’s always gonna be racism, but it’s not him that’s doing it,” Wendy Williams, a white, 53-year-old stay-at-home mom, told him. “And if the riots don’t get taken care of, it’s just making it worse.”
But Trump’s law-and-order pitch doesn’t appear to have won back many of the suburban women who voted for him in 2016 but have since drifted away.
In the YouGov poll, produced for Yahoo, women and suburban voters judged Trump more harshly than voters in general.
One last number from the YouGov poll: 51% of Americans say they believe Trump is “a racist.” That’s not a good sign for him.
“If Trump appeals to prejudice, he risks losing at least as many voters as he stands to gain,” Dan Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, told me.
When Trump embarked on his “law and order” campaign, it sounded like a knowing echo of Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, when the country was wracked by antiwar protests and urban riots.
But Nixon coupled his tough crackdown message with a promise of national reconciliation. His campaign’s final slogan, borrowed from a teenage girl’s hand-lettered placard, was “Bring Us Together.”
Trump hasn’t offered that kind of unifying appeal. There’s not much “bring us together” in his campaign.
That, as much as any other factor, is why so many voters appear to have decided that it’s time for a change.
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