June 4, 2020 / 10:45 AM / 2 months ago

A triple whammy of crises tests Trump's support ahead of November's election

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Battered by crisis after crisis, President Donald Trump appears to be in political peril as never before.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 24, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

Since taking office in 2017, Trump has weathered storm after storm, always emerging with a fighting chance at being re-elected. After he survived an impeachment trial that saw him acquitted by the Republican-led Senate on Feb. 5, things looked up.

Now Trump’s Teflon shield is being put to an acid test as he faces a triple whammy - the biggest public health crisis in a century, the worst economic downturn in generations and the largest civil unrest since the 1960s.

This week, Trump’s calls for a crackdown here on nationwide protests over police brutality have drawn rebukes from civil rights advocates, religious leaders, opposition Democrats and some fellow Republicans. Even former Republican president George W Bush felt the need to issue a statement that the protesters be heard here

Perhaps of more concern to Trump and his re-election campaign, however, is that almost every opinion poll points to clear signs of erosion of his electoral support since the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has taken almost 109,000 American lives since February and led to 40 million jobless claims.

At the same time, his Democratic opponent in the Nov. 3 election, Joe Biden, has re-emerged in public from a coronavirus lockdown, with a message of unity and civic healing here that stands in marked contrast to Trump’s talk of “thugs” and “lowlifes” and “law and order.”

So far, Trump’s aggressive tone does not seem to be matching the moment. An opinion poll by Reuters/Ipsos this week showed that a bipartisan majority of Americans, including twice as many independents, sympathize with protesters and disapprove of Trump’s bellicose response.

REFRAME DEBATE

Republicans say he has time to turn things around, particularly if the economy begins to rebound. And, they note, if the protests persist and become unruly, voters may become more responsive to Trump’s hardline approach.

“As awful as this is, it does allow Trump the opportunity to reframe the debate the way he wants it to be – law and order versus chaos,” said Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee official and frequent Trump critic. “That is part of the conversation that he wants.”

A source close to the Trump campaign said the protests have taken attention away from the government’s often-criticized handling of the pandemic. And Trump could ultimately benefit if states continue to re-open their economies and job numbers improve in the fall, said the source, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.

Right now, though, the numbers are against him.

More than 55% of Americans said they disapproved of Trump’s handling of the protests, including 40% who “strongly” disapproved, while just one-third said they approved - lower than his overall job approval of 39%, the poll showed.

A separate Reuters poll this week showed Biden’s lead over Trump among registered voters expanded to 10 percentage points - the biggest margin since the former vice president became his party’s presumptive nominee in early April.

This week, for the first time since Biden became the likely nominee, betting markets favored him to beat Trump in November. Both Smarkets, based in the U.K. and PredictIT, based in New Zealand, had previously said the odds were with Trump.

With five months to go until the election, there’s plenty of time for those odds to change.

Tim Murtaugh, spokesman for the Trump campaign, said the campaign’s internal data shows the president is “running strong” with Biden in battleground states. “Everyone knows public polling is notoriously wrong about President Trump,” he said.

LOSING GROUND

An analysis of Reuters/Ipsos polling since March shows that Trump’s approval, which has remained remarkably consistent over more than three years, has slipped among some demographic groups of voters who will be crucial in deciding the election.

An increasing number of Americans who make more than $100,000 a year, those between the ages of 35 and 54 years old and white women with college degrees said they were considering Biden.

Trump’s approval among those earning six-figure salaries dropped 15 percentage points between March and May while Biden’s lead with that group expanded by 9 points.

College-educated white women, meanwhile, support Biden over Trump by a 23-point margin, up from 19 points in March. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, won this group by seven points. They helped power Democrats to large gains in 2018’s congressional elections.

Biden’s 10-point lead in the head-to-head poll matched two other national polls by Monmouth University and The Washington Post and ABC News. At this point in 2016, Clinton led Trump generally by less than five points.

Trump’s upset victory then still gives his supporters hope he can do it again.

“I still think he gets re-elected,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. “And I know what all the polls say.”

Robinson pointed to the U.S. stock market being up almost 40% since the coronavirus lockdowns in March as an indicator that “things are not as bad as we thought.”

FILE PHOTO: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks about President Donald Trump's response to protests across the United States during an event at City Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. June 2, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

David Wasserman, an elections analyst with The Cook Report, noted that Trump’s campaign has not been able to fully unleash its attacks on Biden and his record while dealing with the pandemic and protests. That could change this summer.

In addition, because of the makeup of the Electoral College, which dictates the outcome of the election and currently gives Republicans a structural advantage, Wasserman said Biden could be up by as much as 5% in national polls in November and still lose to Trump.

“This lead is not safe,” Wasserman said.

Reporting by James Oliphant and Chris Kahn; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Grant McCool

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