WASHINGTON – Pat Newell backed Donald Trump in 2016.
But after Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention this week included no mention of the police shooting of Jacob Blake that spurred demonstrations in her hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin, the white retired public relations specialist said the president still had work to do before she'll commit to voting for him again in November.
“He simply ignored it,” said Newell, 71, a reliable Republican voter who has also been put off by aspects of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic but approves of his stewardship of the economy. “That’s so bothersome.”
The president can ill afford to lose voters like Newell. His convention underscored the campaign's conviction that Trump's path to reelection rests primarily on voters who backed him four years ago. In a no-room-for-error calculus, he produced a week of programming with fervent appeals to core supporters and limited outreach to anyone else.
Republican strategists and Trump backers offered mixed reviews of whether the strategy will right a campaign that has been set back by his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic collapse as well as his response to unrest this summer spurred by high-profile cases of police brutality against Black men and women, including this week's shooting in Wisconsin.
Looking to stanch eroding support among suburban women and waffling supporters put off by his style, Trump sought to make the case he alone has what it takes to maintain law and order and steer the nation out of public health and economic crises. He spent nearly as much energy branding his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, as a Trojan horse being used by the radical left.
The GOP convention’s target audience, according to campaign officials, was mostly former Trump supporters, those Republicans or independents who may have backed him in 2016 but grew unhappy with his rhetoric or handling of the pandemic. The goal, by trying to humanize Trump and demonize Biden, was to set up a permission structure to make those voters feel comfortable enough to vote for Trump again, even if they cared for his policies far more than his personality.
Officials believe they accomplished that over the four-day convention and are encouraged by internal numbers that show Trump had begun closing the gap on Biden even before the events of this week in Washington. The campaign’s theory of the election has long been to turn out Trump’s base — a smaller set of the electorate than which backs Biden, but more enthusiastic — while also trying to win over nonvoters and drive up negative impressions of Biden so that some of his possible backers stay home.
Tina Giza, who waited hours to see Trump in New Hampshire at his first post-convention rally on Friday, was full of praise for the RNC.
“He had so many different speakers from all sectors and experiences, talking about all the things he’s done for different groups, different ethnic groups. It was just awesome,” said Giza, 64, a retired nurse from Connecticut. “It was very uplifting, very positive. It made me feel really good watching it.”
The president’s advisers privately acknowledge minefields lay ahead in the final nine weeks before Election Day.
Trump aides are warily watching the calendar as Labor Day approaches, concerned that the three-day weekend, traditionally marked by parties and sizable gatherings, could trigger a spike in infections just like they believe Memorial Day did at the other bookend of summer, according to three White House and campaign officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
Even without another surge in coronavirus deaths and infections, some Trump backers say he needs to do more to unite a fractured nation.
“He’s obtuse, and he doesn’t get it,” said Lee Davis, who watched parts of the convention from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, a Republican-leaning exurb of Milwaukee. “But I don’t think he’s a racist. I just think he’s incapable of moving comfortably to talking about race. It’s one of the many things he handles poorly because he’s nihilist.”
The 55-year-old white insurance underwriter is exactly the sort of voter that Trump is relying on as he tries to repeat his success in battlegrounds like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — states where he narrowly won in 2016 but polls show he faces a difficult fight.
In the half-ring of suburban and ex-urban counties around Milwaukee, where Trump won but underperformed by historic GOP standards in 2016, Trump likely will need to improve his margins. Democrats made gains in swing-voting rural areas in Wisconsin far from the metro area in the 2018 midterms and 2020 special elections.
“The president’s problems are bigger than any one speech could fix,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “He is trying to stop bleeding in suburbs. He’s trying to stop bleeding with seniors and independent voters.”
The convention programming included fiery speeches by the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani warning of greater chaos in the streets should Biden win, endorsements from law enforcement officials and an emotional address from the widow of a retired St. Louis police officer who was killed this summer while helping a friend whose shop had been broken into during the unrest that was affecting many cities.
Trump barely addressed broader issues of police brutality and racial injustice during a speech Thursday that spanned more than an hour, saying simply, “We will ensure equal justice for citizens of every race, religion, color and creed.”
“This whole dynamic is incredibly complicated at this point,” said David Winston, a strategist who works closely with congressional Republicans. “Post-election, there may be some Monday morning quarterbacking. But in the middle of it, it’s hard to say what’s the right answer.”
During the convention, Trump surrogates sought to soften his image with women by highlighting some of his female administration officials and concern for them outside the job.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany recalled how Trump and first lady Melania Trump checked in on her after she went through a preventive surgery to avoid developing breast cancer. Kellyanne Conway, his outgoing senior adviser, applauded Trump for handing her the reigns for the closing of the 2016 campaign — making her the first woman to manage a winning presidential campaign.
Trump's daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump spotlighted that 70% of new jobs created went to women in 2019 and described him as a doting grandfather. She also acknowledged Trump’s use of social media — he regularly uses the platform to put political opponents, businesses and cultural figures who are at odds with him on blast — isn’t for everyone.
“I know his tweets can feel a bit … unfiltered,” said Ivanka Trump in introducing the president before his acceptance speech. “But the results speak for themselves.”
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa, and Madhani from Chicago. Associated Press writer Holly Ramer contributed to this report from Londonderry, N.H.