Concerned about his political prospects and no longer able to rely upon a surging economy, President Donald Trump is using his office to appeal to the voting constituencies that helped propel him there – and whose support some advisers fear is now slipping.
Even as he stokes a reliable base of white male voters using a new ideological divide on face masks and reviving claims of anti-conservative bias on social media, Trump is simultaneously seeking out policies that could help shore up places where support appears to be slipping.
If there was any question why Trump was standing in the Rose Garden on Tuesday announcing a new insulin affordability effort directed toward older Americans, he provided an answer four and a half minutes into his speech.
“I hope the seniors are going to remember it,” Trump said after unveiling the plan and musing, off-script, whether he should take insulin himself. (While his annual physical results haven’t been released, he is not known to be diabetic.)
“I hope you’re going to remember me just in case the unthinkable happens,” he said later, a rare nod to the possibility he doesn’t win a second term in November.
It was a moment of honesty from Trump as he works to bolster his standing after a coronavirus response seen by most Americans as lacking. Trump’s remarks included a claim that his election-year rival Joe Biden couldn’t have achieved the same insulin pricing scheme.
Poll numbers give cause for concern
A Quinnipiac poll released a week ago showed the former vice president leading Trump by 10 points with registered voters over 65 – a bloc he won handily in 2016. Those numbers matched a CNN survey from earlier this month.
The President’s political advisers have also grown concerned about his standing slipping with religious conservatives. With an eye toward evangelical and white Catholic voters, Trump announced last week that churches and other places of worship would be deemed “essential” and that he would override governors who sought to prevent their reopening.
Whether Trump is successful in maintaining – or in some cases, luring back – the voters whose support he’ll need to November remains to be seen. Much could depend on whether a resurgence of the virus follows the reopening efforts he’s heralded.
For now, though, his strategy seems clear cut – and he has done little to disguise his political overtures. Even Trump’s decision to forgo a face mask in public seems designed, in part, to appeal to the one demographic who say in polls that masks should not be required for everyone: white men. It’s among that bloc Trump performed best in 2016.
Getting back on the trail
As he begins official travel again after months remaining at the White House because of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has focused on battlegrounds that he won in 2016 but where some polls now show his support slipping: Arizona, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Those states’ older populations helped Trump win them four years ago.
On Wednesday, he’s due to head to Florida, where in 2016 more than 20% of voters were aged over 65, according to exit polls. Trump won the bloc by 17 points that year – but recent polls have shown Biden with an edge among Florida seniors.
As he stood in the Rose Garden on Tuesday to announce a plan he said would drastically reduce the price of insulin for seniors, Trump had Biden in mind.
“Nobody has seen anything like this for a long time,” Trump said. “Sleepy Joe can’t do this – that, I can tell you.”
Speaking on Wednesday, Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway denied the event was a tacit attempt to shore up support among older Americans.
“It’s a scream-out-loud expression that the senior citizens in the Democratic Party like Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden have done absolutely nothing for seniors when it comes to insulin and the cost of prescription drugs,” Conway told reporters, adding: “This president has been working for seniors every day for three years. There’s nothing tacit about a stated-out-loud, loudly and proudly in the Rose Garden.”
Still, the message came amid a coronavirus pandemic that has most directly affected older Americans. Trump’s support among the oldest voting bloc has softened during the outbreak, worrying some of his advisers and leading to renewed efforts at the White House to highlight support for seniors.
Over the past month, Trump has declared “Older Americans Month” and sought to improve testing and treatment for residents of nursing homes, where coronavirus has ravaged populations. His vice president has been photographed delivering supplies to nursing homes and mentions senior citizens often in public remarks.
The announcement on Tuesday fit within that effort. Trump said most senior Medicare recipients will be able to get prescription plans that cap copay costs for insulin, allowing them access to various types of insulins at no more than a $35 copay for a month’s supply.
Senior citizens are among the country’s most reliable voters and voted for Trump by a 7-point margin in 2016. But the President’s response to the coronavirus has some Republicans worried that support among that group could be softening.
The CNN poll conducted by SSRS taken earlier this month found 56% of respondents over the age of 65 disapproved of Trump’s handling of the outbreak, compared to 42% who approved. That was the lowest approval of any age group except those between 18 and 34.
The same poll showed 57% of registered voters over 65 would vote for Biden if the presidential election were held today, versus 42% who said they would vote for Trump.
The falloff has concerned some of Trump’s political advisers, some of whom expressed concern that the President’s performance and sometimes-erratic behavior amid the pandemic has alienated seniors. Those concerns, in part, led to the scuttling of the daily coronavirus briefings that often saw the President going off-piste and lashing out against his perceived enemies.
Some of Trump’s advisers have also conceded that Biden – who served in the Senate for decades before his eight years as vice president – is a known and more well-liked entity for older voters than Hillary Clinton was when she was Trump’s rival in 2016.
Privately, some Republicans have expressed concern that efforts by Trump and his campaign to paint Biden as doddering and senile could backfire among the oldest voting group, according to people familiar with the thinking.
In his remarks in the Rose Garden on Tuesday, Trump took direct aim at Biden – but also at the Affordable Care Act, despite surveys showing Obamacare reaching new levels of popularity during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I hope the seniors are going to remember it,” Trump said of the new policy, “because Biden is the one that put us into the jam because they didn’t know what they were doing, they were incompetent.”
Reaching out to evangelical voters
Last week, Trump was delivering another politically tinged message about Democrats and their willingness to reopen churches – a recent flashpoint amid the nation’s lockdown.
“The churches are not being treated with respect by a lot of Democratic governors,” Trump said Thursday as he was leaving the White House to visit a ventilator factory in Michigan. “I want to get our churches open. We will take a very strong position on that very soon.”
A day later, he did just that by stepping into the White House briefing room and declaring houses of worship essential, using language that appealed directly to evangelicals.
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It’s not right. So, I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential,” he said.
The announcement, much like Trump’s decision to eschew a face mask in public, appeared to be another attempt at seizing the ideological divisions that are emerging amid the pandemic and using them for political advantage.
The move did not have unanimous agreement among his coronavirus task force, one source told CNN. A battle had been raging internally over how detailed the guidance for reopening places of worship should be, with the President’s political advisers arguing the proposals offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were too complex and would slow the opening of churches, possibly hurting Trump’s standing with evangelicals who felt stay-at-home restrictions had limited their religious freedoms.
Some advocated for issuing no guidance at all and allowing churches, mosques and other places of worship make their own decisions.
After watching coverage on Fox News that criticized how liquor stores and abortion clinics were considered essential services, Trump decided churches should be too – a move that later drew praise from several evangelical leaders.
But some of his health experts expressed concern about how quickly they were moving.
“Maybe they can’t go this week if there’s high number of Covid cases,” Dr. Deborah Birx told reporters after the President had left the briefing room that day. “Maybe they wait another week. But there is a way to social distance, like you are here, in places of worship.”
Any decision on reopening churches was considered highly sensitive among Trump’s advisers because of its political ramifications. Trump has enjoyed strong support among white Christian groups, even when his behavior seemed opposed to their ideals.
But polls over the last few months, including a Pew Research Center survey, have shown a downturn among those groups in how he’s handled the coronavirus outbreak. The Pew poll showed a slide in confidence among white Evangelicals, white Catholics and white non-evangelical Protestants – though a majority in the three categories still gave Trump high marks for his coronavirus performance.
Though he once pushed to reopen the nation in time for Easter Sunday services – another move viewed as an appeal to religious voters – Trump himself did not attend church the Sunday after he declared he would override governors who refused to open theirs.
Instead, he was seen golfing at his club outside Washington.