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Trump has to choose between the circus and the White House

Author : Matthew Continetti

He can’t win on Republican votes alone, and what he does to whip up the base hurts him with independents
11:42, 4 November 2019

Associated Press

It seems that President Trump likes nothing more than to stand in front of adoring crowds, as he did recently at a rally in Dallas, and talk about “the greatest election in the history of our country.” He means, of course, the election of 2016. He riffs on a “booming” economy and “crazy” Democrats who “betrayed” the country. His audience eats it up.

Indeed, he has a rock-steady base of Republicans — and most of what you hear about it comes from the president himself. “94% approval rating in the Republican Party, a record. Thank you!” he tweeted in September. The number he cited has the same basis in fact as many of Mr. Trump’s tweets — none — but nevertheless more than 80 percent of Republican voters do approve of the president’s job performance.

Mr. Trump’s problem is that he can’t win re-election on Republican votes alone. He needs independents. He has won their votes before — in 2016 — but he has a lot of work to do if he wants to regain their support. He has the material for a strong campaign. He just needs to grasp it. Does he have the self-discipline required to pull off the job?

Related: Biden slams Trump for dismissing Russian election interference

Independents made up about a third of the electorate nationwide in 2016, according to exit polls. Mr. Trump won these voters 48 percent to 42 percent. No doubt there were more than a few independents among the 78,000 voters across Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania who secured the Electoral College for the Republican nominee. But he hasn’t held onto them.

Independents have not been happy with Mr. Trump. Only 36 percent approved of the job he was doing during his first week in office, according to YouGov. The number was the same in late October this year. But significantly, over the same period, disapproval has spiked to 45 percent from 28 percent.

The picture is similar at the state level. The exit poll showed Mr. Trump winning independents in Wisconsin by 10 points in 2016. In a recent survey by Marquette University Law School, these voters preferred Joe Biden to Mr. Trump by a nine-point margin.

Mr. Trump won a 48 percent of independents in Pennsylvania in 2016. But in an August 2019 survey by Franklin & Marshall College, just 27 percent of the state’s independents approved of the president. And in Michigan, where Mr. Trump won independents by 52 to 36 percent, half now support the impeachment inquiry.

The shift in attitude indicates that for many independent voters, 2016 was a lesser-of-two-evils election. Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton were two of the most unpopular candidates in the history of polling. Independents cast their lot with Mr. Trump, probably because of his emphasis on job creation and his call for change.

Independent voters will be faced with a different choice in 2020. Assuming Mr. Trump survives impeachment, his re-election depends on his ability to convince independents that the Democratic alternative will be more disruptive, risky and unpopular than he is.

Mr. Trump’s temperament and erratic, confrontational style are part of the reason voters do not like him. The Public Religion Research Institute’s 2019 American values survey found that 33 percent of American adults say their vote will depend on the identity of the Democratic nominee. Of this cohort, two-thirds say Mr. Trump’s personal conduct makes it less likely they will support him. What keeps them from rushing into the Democratic column is uncertainty over the eventual nominee.

Mr. Trump has two ways he could regain his standing among independents and win over undecided voters. He can pray that Democrats nominate a candidate whose personality and policies independents find more unappealing than his own. Or he can modify the way he comports himself in public. It is telling that the least likely option is the one within Mr. Trump’s control.

Still, Mr. Trump has been occasionally willing to act in the traditional presidential manner he describes as “stiff.” He more or less stuck to the script as he barnstormed the country in the last days of the 2016 campaign, joking that his advisers had told him, “‘Stay on point, Donald, stay on point.’” His State of the Union addresses have been full of the typical ceremony, pomp and decorum. Some of his speeches delivered overseas — in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Warsaw and Normandy, France — would fit nicely in volumes of presidential rhetoric.

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These are exceptions. More often, Mr. Trump has pursued a base-first strategy that rewards loyal constituencies at the expense of independents and moderates. By the 2018 midterms, he was no longer “on point.” During raucous campaign appearances, he devoted more time to migrant caravans than to the state of the economy. With so many Senate contests in favorable red states, that may have helped expand the Republican majority. But it also alienated the voters in suburban districts across the country who decide which party controls the House of Representatives.

For Mr. Trump to connect with the voters he has lost over the last three years, he would have to reduce the rally ad-libs about the Academy Awards and the lost 33,000 emails, limit his free-for-all exchanges with the White House press corps — and above all delete Twitter from his phone.

Mr. Trump has a greater chance of winning the Powerball than of taking these actions. He prefers to rely on his enemies, and his remarkable luck, to keep him in the White House.

Should he choose to, though — as his campaign did in a World Series ad — he can stress the six million jobs created under his watch. He can also talk about, as he did in Dallas, turning the Republican Party into the party of “the American worker, the American family” and “the American dream.” He can even remind people that “it’s also the party of Honest Abe Lincoln.”

Mr. Trump has delivered on promises he made to conservatives during the 2016 campaign. He’s stocked the judiciary, including the Supreme Court, with jurists in the mold of Antonin Scalia. He’s cut taxes, rescinded environmental and financial regulations, hewed to the N.R.A. line on guns, increased military spending and declared a national emergency to fund his border wall.

What he hasn’t done is satisfy an essential part of the coalition that brought him victory in 2016. Continuing to ignore the forgotten independent voter may prove Mr. Trump’s undoing.

Read the original text at The New York Times.

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