Under siege for his management of a deadly pandemic, a cratered U.S. economy, and mass protests across the country, top advisers to President Donald Trump are finding solace in one question: How the hell is he not even more unpopular?
Though poll after poll shows the president in a historically bad position for an incumbent in an election year, inside the White House and on the campaign a feeling of relief has begun setting in that it’s not worse. As they see it, any one of the events of the past few months would have tanked a prior president’s standing. They endured a global pandemic, a historic rise in unemployment, and a sweeping revolt against the criminal justice system in quick succession. And, through it all, many of them feel bruised but politically intact.
“Obviously you would prefer to see Trump winning big in every swing state right now but if you put things into context and consider that we have 40 million Americans unemployed, a deadly virus, and race riots [and] protests unfolding currently, and he’s still within the margin of error in every battleground state, it’s tough to feel like the sky is falling,” said a source close to the White House. “It’s hard to imagine the environment getting tougher for him than it is today, so if I were the Biden campaign, especially as the economy improves, I would be very concerned that the president is still clearly in the game.”
Spinning a political landscape as “it could have been worse” by definition means it’s not currently great. And few folks in Trump’s orbit would argue otherwise. Privately, there are grumblings over the handling of the COVID pandemic and, publicly, there’s been admonishment from many Republicans for the president’s heavy-handed, bumbling-authoritarian approach to putting down the protests in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. In each case, the thinking goes, Trump not only erred on substantive and constitutional grounds, but he made his re-election prospects that much more remote.
The polling averages certainly bear that out, with Trump now trailing Biden 42.2 to 49.3 percent, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average. But inside the White House, the feeling is that the bottom hasn’t fallen out—not yet, at least. One senior White House official said that their “nightmare scenario” is if the president were to dip below the low-40s in public and internal polling, which would signal that his durable base and range of support was starting to dent.
“Until then, I’m not a doomsayer,” this official added.
Trump himself also seems pleasantly surprised. On Thursday, he held multiple meetings at the White House with senior officials in his administration and from his re-election team, including campaign manager Brad Parscale and his son-in-law and top White House aide Jared Kushner. According to a person familiar with one of the meetings with president, Trump marveled at how stable his base had stayed in the current data given everything in the news lately and how negative the press coverage has been. (Trump specifically stressed that the media coverage had been even worse than it usually is.)
At one point, the president’s team also reassured him by insisting that public polling that shows him trailing Biden skews Democratic because those pollsters often don’t poll “likely voters.” And according to two sources familiar with the White House meeting, Trump’s lieutenants again reminded the president that, whatever the rest of the data says, he continues to maintain a wide “enthusiasm gap” between him and Biden, both in public surveys and the Trump campaign’s internal numbers.
Others argued that the polls themselves were junk. Matt Schlapp, a lobbyist and close outside adviser to the president and his team, said he thought people were being biased in the responses they were giving to pollsters because of the weightiness and sensitivity of the surrounding world events.
“I think that after you’ve had a pandemic which is unprecedented on top of unprecedented losses in the economy, on top of race riots and arson to St. Johns’ Church and other places and all the looting…. You take the polls and stop looking at them for a little bit because there's too many gyrations,” said Schlapp. “My guess is more and more people will be less honest with them about radicalized violent groups like antifa because in these cities if you oppose cop killings and going after cops that equates with being against the interests of black people.”
For Republicans, the possibility of a president stumbling into deep bipartisan levels of unpopularity is not some abstract idea. Richard Nixon resigned from the White House in disgrace rather than be impeached and George W. Bush left office with his approval in the mid to low thirties as the economy collapsed around him. That Trump has so far avoided the same fate may be reason to celebrate in the White House. But for others in the party it also is a sign of a political strategy that comes with a tradeoff: mainly, there’s little room to grow.
“The reason the bottom hasn’t fallen out is because at every turn Trump has done exactly what 40 percent of the country wants him to do,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and pollster who worked for the Bush White House. “His problem is there is about 55 percent of the country that really disagrees with him.”
As Conant sees it, one of the main reasons Bush’s poll numbers cratered was that he was willing to, on occasion, annoy his base; whether in his pursuits of immigration and Social Security reform, the failed nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, or the bailouts for the banks in ‘08.
“Trump’s base is loyal to him because he is also very loyal to his base,” said Conant. “He never does anything that could undermine him with his own base.”
In the weeks ahead, Trump seems poised to do much the same. Two Trump administration officials told The Daily Beast that the president has insisted that he and his team hold various public appearances around the country not only to herald “re-opening” and some signs of economic uptick, but also to tout the restoration of Trump’s version of “law and order.”
The president is also pushing for feel-good quintessentially Americana moments as a means of keeping morale among his supporters high. He was so determined to attend the SpaceX launch at Kennedy Space Center in Florida that he went back after the first mission was aborted because of weather considerations. And he’s been keeping tabs on plans for his July 3rd visit to Mount Rushmore, where the governor has now said there will be no social distancing—another seeming attempt to portray the COVID crisis as a thing of the past.
He also seems keen on keeping his base intact by attacking any Republican or ex-administration official who dares to speak out against him. And, increasingly, they are. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the president’s crackdown on protests antithetical to the Constitution. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said she was torn about supporting Trump in 2020. And former Chief of Staff John Kelly said on Friday that the country needed to “look harder at who we elect.”
In response, Trump insisted, erroneously, that he fired Mattis and pledged to campaign against Murkowski. And Schlapp, for his part, called Kelly a disgruntled Democrat.
“I have admiration for John Kelly but I wouldn’t listen to him politically,” he said. He and Mattis “were picked because they weren’t associated with the Republican Party. Now they were both bad picks and when each one was picked I grimaced. Because, in the end, Democrats tend to act like Democrats.”