The weeks preceding the Republican National Convention saw far more focus on where President Donald Trump would give his acceptance speech than what he would say in it.
But Trump’s nightly convention appearances — climaxed by the Thursday night acceptance speech — are providing the first tangible signs of how the GOP hopes to cut his pre-convention electoral deficit to Joe Biden, glossing over Trump’s missteps and portraying his rival as weak, socialist and unqualified.
Biden’s strong acceptance speech may have complicated the selling of that portrait. To win this election, the president may need to take at least three major steps between now and Nov. 3 that he has heretofore resisted.
Better manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
The effort by many of this week’s convention speakers to praise Trump’s management of the crisis conflicts with reality, as well as with polls showing the public has rejected his laissez faire approach.
His persistent predictions the pandemic would gradually disappear have proved untrue. The economy remains in recession. And Trump faces skepticism by hailing each development in the search for an anti-COVID vaccine as a breakthrough after his prior efforts to sell questionable panaceas such as hydroxychloroquine.
Still, the president can strengthen his standing by increasing federal managing of the testing and other aspects of the situation, easing his opposition to an expanded congressional bailout of states and cities and helping to speed additional relief for the millions still not working.
He could even borrow from Biden by setting national standards for enhanced testing, and he could stop his efforts to play favorites among the states by helping Republican governors more than Democrats.
He could also increase federal pressure on states like Georgia that refused to put sufficient strictures into place and suffered an unexpectedly big increase in COVID-19 infections.
By changing his emphasis, Trump could cut his potential electoral losses among older voters most fearful of contracting the coronavirus and most concerned he has not done enough to diminish the dangers to them.
Set forth a second-term agenda.
On several occasions, Trump has been asked about what he hopes to accomplish in a second term and has changed the subject.
On Monday, he listed some generalized goals like further increasing military spending and seeking more trade agreements. And he pledged to create 10 million jobs and 1 million small businesses in 10 months, presumably by restoring those lost because of the pandemic.
His next opportunity is Thursday night’s acceptance speech. Though aides said he would stress his first term record, presidential elections are often about the future. That’s why Biden included some steps he hopes to take in his acceptance speech, and Melania Trump did so in her convention speech Tuesday night.
It could help Trump to go beyond generalities or things he failed to achieve in his first term, like replacing Obamacare, which is still operating despite his efforts to weaken it.
He has talked about additional tax cuts including extending the recently implemented temporary payroll tax holiday. But the soaring federal deficit may limit realistic prospects for enacting additional reductions.
Slow the tempo of his tweets and his rhetoric.
Polls show Trump has lost some support among voters who like his judicial nominations, the 2017 tax cut and the cutback in federal regulations.
The reason is that those voters are turned off by the president’s incessant tweeting, the harshness of his commentary and the self-induced chaos in the White House. As a result, a president who made virtually no effort to broaden his base by appealing to voters who opposed him in 2016 is in danger of driving away some who voted for him and would do so again.
Judging from recent polling, Trump can’t afford to lose those voters. They represent the gap between the 46% of voters who voted for him in 2016, and the smaller portion who say he’s doing a good job in office. Trump’s job approval rating has ranged between the upper 30s and the mid-40s.
Though minor party nominees are likely to attract far fewer votes this year than in 2016, Trump still doesn’t need 50% to win. Massive Democratic majorities in California and New York mean Biden will likely emulate Hillary Clinton by getting more popular votes, whether he wins the election.
What Trump needs is to cut Biden’s current national margin of about 8 points in half if he is to repeat his “inside straight” of 2016, when he won the election by carrying Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by a total of just 77,000 votes.
But Trump won’t succeed if, despite a concerted convention effort, he loses too many voters who agree with his policies.
Trump may be able to win re-election without a full second-term agenda. But he may struggle to do so unless he tones down his often divisive rhetoric.
And he is even less likely to succeed without convincing more Americans that, if he wins a second term, he will do a better job managing the pandemic than he has done so far.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.