In the final stretch of the race, a trio of long-standing challenges have converged to create a daunting barrier to Trump’s reelection: The inability to drag down Biden’s favorability ratings, the lack of a clearly articulated second-term agenda and an enduring pandemic that continues to upend American life.
A funding crunch at the Trump campaign has exacerbated the challenge, limiting the president’s ability to drive home his closing message on the airwaves. Trump, who was recently hospitalized after contracting the novel coronavirus, is aiming to make up for the financial disadvantage by holding nightly rallies that highlight the enthusiasm of his base but often draw him off message.
“Suburban women, will you please like me?” Trump pleaded Tuesday during a rally in Johnstown, Pa., in an explicit appeal to a group polls show him losing badly. “Please, please. I saved your damned neighborhood, ok? The other thing, I don’t have much time to be that nice. You know, I can do it but I got to go quickly.”
Trailing significantly in national and swing state polls, Trump is attempting to stage a historic comeback. But his actions and rhetoric in recent days have stumped even some of his allies who are trying to decipher his broader strategy — and, increasingly, questioning if there is one.
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted a doctored image of Biden in a nursing home with other elderly residents. The tweet — and the Trump campaign’s move earlier in the day to have a former White House doctor declare Biden mentally unfit — came as polls show the president trailing among senior citizens, a group he carried in 2016. One senior administration official said there have been a series of meetings with campaign officials, White House officials and Trump outside advisers on how to fix the president’s problem with senior citizens, but the president keeps making that job harder with his comments and tweets.
Kellyanne Conway, the president’s longtime political adviser, has argued to other aides that the messaging on Biden’s age needs to change, officials said. She spoke with Trump about ideas for his messaging on Wednesday, advisers said.
The Trump campaign claims that the president’s aggressive activities in recent days help drive home a broader theme, casting him as energetic outsider taking on establishment politician who they claim is past his prime. On Wednesday. Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller highlighted disputed allegations about Biden’s son, Hunter, in an attempt to amplify that message.
“The contrast between a 47-year swamp creature in Joe Biden and a businessman president Trump has been a major focus of this campaign and a major theme of this campaign, and I would expect it to be so” going forward, he said. “I would expect the Trump campaign to continue highlighting the contrast between an outsider businessman like President Trump and a swamp creature grifter, like Joe Biden.”
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh offered a similar message, saying Biden has “a 47-year record of failure as a Washington politician.”
The campaign and the president’s allies on Wednesday began aggressively pushing a report in the New York Post about emails Biden’s son Hunter purportedly exchanged with business partners and officials at a Ukrainian gas company, alleging it shows how he used his father’s time as vice president to enrich himself.
The Biden campaign has disputed the report, which was based off information provided by Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, and The Washington Post was unable to verify the authenticity of the alleged correspondence. Giuliani did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Biden has taken a more disciplined approach than Trump to the final weeks of the campaign, pressing Trump on health care and the White House’s disjointed coronavirus response at almost every campaign event, The Trump campaign has pointed out that Biden only sparingly takes questions from reporters where he could be pressed to discuss issues beyond his talking points.
Trump’s lack of consistency has itself become an attack line for Biden, who on Wednesday criticized the president for his erratic approach to stimulus negotiations.
“Three days later, after he said he was walking away, he said he’s coming back,” Biden said during a virtual fundraiser. “One day, he’s tweeting that the relief package is too big … next day it’s too small.”
In remarks that touched on Trump’s coronavirus response and foreign policy, Biden said “the longer he’s president, the more reckless he gets.”
After being stricken with covid-19, Trump has increasingly used his crowded rallies to defend his handling of the pandemic — while also downplaying the deadly virus even as it surges across the country. First lady Melania Trump said Wednesday that their son, Barron, tested positive for the coronavirus about the same time as his parents but has since tested negative.
Some GOP lawmakers have openly chastised the Trump administration for its inconsistent response to a virus that has killed more than 216,000 Americans.
But some Trump advisers say the campaign faces a range of problems, beyond an undisciplined candidate. In many of the key battleground states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, Trump is trailing by significant margins, according to public and internal data.
Advisers feel better about other states, such as Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, according to three campaign officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.
Trump’s campaign does not have enough money to do television advertising in all the states it would like, according to four campaign advisers.
Trump is continuing to raise funds, including at a planned event at his golf club in Doral, Fla., Thursday night where tickets go for up to $100,000. Biden has outspent Trump in several states recently.
The campaign is now holding daily messaging meetings, where the staff members talk about where to target their messages going forward, advisers say.
According to Republican polling, Trump has consistently performed better than Biden on the economy — and little else — leaving advisers to push Trump to speak more forcefully and regularly about the topic down the home stretch. Internal GOP polling has shown Trump’s message on taxes is particularly resonant — though getting him to stick to it has been a challenge.
One adviser said, with a mix of gallows humor, that they wished the president would talk as much about the economy as he does about not winning the Nobel Peace Prize and how the media didn’t cover his nomination for the award by a Norwegian politician.
On Wednesday, Trump spoke virtually to the Economic Club of New York, and sought to contrast his vision for the economy against Biden’s plan.
“The choice facing America is simple: it’s the choice between historic prosperity under my pro-American policies, or very crippling poverty and a steep depression under the radical left,” he said. “And that’s what you’ll have, is a depression.”
But Trump’s efforts to paint Biden as the champion of a “socialist nightmare” have so far failed to cut through. Voters have been skeptical of the Trump campaign’s varying efforts to turn Biden into a fear-inducing figure, said veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres.
“The president’s closing argument seems to be the Joe Biden and the Democrats will destroy your life,” he said. “It’s clear that demonizing Joe Biden is a much more formidable task than demonizing Hillary Clinton.”
Some campaign’s advisers are arguing for more targeted messages against Biden in key states — not necessarily in a bid to win voters over to Trump, but to keep Biden supporters at home.
“It’s a total waste of time for us to be putting up these soft ads on coronavirus,” one senior campaign official said. “We aren’t going to persuade voters with that.”
The internal debate over strategy often spills into public as Trump openly undercuts his campaign’s messaging or airs his grievances on multiple topics in interviews, speeches and tweets.
The morning after Vice President Pence debated with Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) — a performance many Republicans said showcased how the president should be pressing his case against his rivals — Trump spent almost an hour calling into Fox Business Network for yet another interview with a friendly host. During the interview, Trump called Harris a “monster, called on Attorney General William P. Barr to indict his political opponents and suggested that Gold Star families may have infected him with the coronavirus.
“They wanna hug me and they wanna kiss me, and they do,” Trump said of the families of fallen service members.
Trump’s interview upset some of Pence’s allies, who questioned the strategy behind overshadowing what they saw as the vice president’s clear debate victory, according to White House officials.
Some of Trump’s GOP allies, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have urged him to tone down his aggressive personality to win over moderate voters.
Increasingly, elected Republicans are publicly calling on Trump to put together a more clear and concise reelection message and second-term agenda.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who publicly criticized Trump in June for struggling to articulate what he would do in a second term, took to Twitter on Tuesday to offer the president some advice for his rallies.
He encouraged Trump to “use pocket card at podium” with brief outlines of his accomplishments, differences with Biden, and goals for the future.
“Focusing on these simple highlights will help ur msg & only take 5mins,” he wrote, adding: “then say whatever u want.”
Some Republicans have complained that the president seems more focused on attacking Hillary Clinton or getting the Justice Department to prosecute Obama administration officials than prosecuting the case against a potential Biden presidency.
But others, like former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Donald Trump Jr., have pushed for an even more bare-knuckles approach, amplifying attacks on Biden’s family that mirror the critiques against Clinton four years ago.
Polls suggest that that approach, sporadically embraced by the president, has not worked as well this time around, said Amy Walter, national editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“Right now, he’s campaigning as if it’s October of 2016,” she said. “It’s like watching someone who is not accepting the fact that the political environment has changed, his opponent has changed. He’s no longer a challenger, he’s an incumbent. All of those things matter.”
Ashley Parker contributed to this report.