After months of blaming China for coronavirus and in recent weeks attacking the nationwide anti-racism protests sparked by George Floyd’s death, Donald Trump this week found a fresh target: a CNN election poll.
The Trump campaign asked CNN to retract a poll, which showed Joe Biden 14 points ahead of the president nationally — the biggest margin this year for the former vice-president and Democratic presidential nominee.
“This is what can happen when one is in the bunker,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, adding that it was a “classic example” of staff impressing a boss by “fighting” for him despite no chance of success.
The Trump campaign has hit turbulence five months from election day. Earlier this year, Mr Trump was riding higher on a strong economy and soaring stock market following his impeachment trial acquittal.
Now, he faces multiple crises that cannot be solved by a tweet. The coronavirus death toll has topped 100,000 and 40m Americans have lost their jobs and he is struggling to make the case for his re-election. A national outcry against systemic racism and rapidly shifting public opinion on the issue have also undermined the appeal of the president’s nativist rhetoric among crucial independent voters.
Mr Biden has an average national lead of 8 points, according to Real Clear Politics. He is also ahead in many swing states that Mr Trump won in 2016, including Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona.
Mr Trump has only a very narrow lead in Texas, a state that has not voted for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter won the White House in 1976.
In his struggle to regain the narrative, Mr Trump has reverted to the “law and order” message he used in 2016 and the 2018 midterm elections. But instead of warning about Mexican “rapists” and migrant “caravans” he has rallied his base with largely baseless claims about violent, anti-fascist protesters wreaking havoc across America.
“These ugly Anarchists must be stooped [sic],” he tweeted on Wednesday.
However, while his support among Republicans, and particularly his base, has remained solid, he is struggling with independents. Harry Enten, a CNN polling expert, said he was in “tremendous trouble” because most independents were critical of his response to the protests.
“The CNN poll . . . showed his approval with independents dropped from 46 per cent to 37 per cent. He led Biden among independents by 4 points in May and now trails by 11 points,” said Mr Enten.
Mr Enten said the only plausible boost for Mr Trump would be if the “defund the police” movement gained steam since independents were “still overwhelmingly satisfied with their local police departments”.
But Mr Biden has rejected calls from some Democrats to shift money from the police to other services that they argue would better tackle racism and its causes, making it harder for Mr Trump to take that tack.
Mr Trump saw his best approval ratings earlier this year following his acquittal and in the very early days of the pandemic, according to a Gallup tracking poll. But it has plummeted by 10 points over the past month to 39 per cent, placing him below the 50 per cent bar regarded as a good indicator of re-election chances.
Mr Trump, who has largely remained holed up in the White House, on Wednesday said he would resume campaign rallies next week.
Mr Biden has been restricted to campaigning virtually from his Delaware home by the pandemic, but many Democrats believe that his “basement strategy” has been an advantage as it minimises opportunities for him to make his trademark gaffes.
The president has tried to paint Mr Biden as weak for wearing a face mask the few times he has ventured out. But the attacks looked impotent after it emerged that Mr Trump had been whisked to a secure bunker when protesters approached the White House two weeks ago.
Mr Trump has also been lambasted for a stunt at a church near the White House that resulted in police using tear gas to disperse protesters. Several Republicans joined former top military commanders in slamming the move. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs, on Thursday took the rare move of apologising for taking part.
The Trump campaign said the president has achievements, such as the 2017 tax-cut legislation, that would help in November. But the deluge of recent news events has drowned these out.
Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, said every poll showed that there was “increasing frustration with the president over what he says”.
“It’s not that Joe Biden is doing great. He isn’t,” Mr Luntz added. “It’s that swing voters have been watching and listening to the president — and a lot of them don’t like what they’re hearing.”
Mr Trump and his “law-and-order” strategy faces the hurdle of the growing number of Americans who have risen up against racism in recent weeks.
Underscoring the shift, Nascar, which has its roots in the conservative Deep South, this week banned Confederate flags at stock-car races, in the latest example of prohibiting Civil War-era racist symbols.
Yet as the Pentagon considered renaming bases honouring Confederate generals, Mr Trump vowed to block the move. “Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with,” he said.
He is swimming against a powerful tide. The view that police are more likely to use excessive force on African Americans has become a majority after Floyd’s death. Mr Luntz this week tweeted that he had not seen public opinion shift so rapidly in 35 years in the business.
“This is big. This is ‘Beatles on Ed Sullivan’ big,” he said, referring to the TV appearance that helped launch the band’s popularity in the US.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi