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'Trump is frightening them': President's reelection message risks alienating voters, strategists say

Francesca Chambers and Alex Roarty, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- His back up against a wall, President Donald Trump has made a concerted effort in recent weeks to regain a coalition of white voters who can help him win the 2020 presidential election with a message finely calibrated to play on racial anxieties.

He has criticized NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag and defended statues commemorating Confederate leaders. He has attacked Black Lives Matter protesters for destroying "our heritage" and called their slogan a "symbol of hate."

Preaching a "law and order" message that harks back to the turbulent 1960s, Trump is betting that a "silent majority" of voters who are unwilling to publicly admit their true feelings about the racial divide will rally to his candidacy at the secret ballot box.

It's an approach that has bewildered most traditional political strategists.

"Everything that Trump says is too over-caffeinated for the people that he needs to win. It's over-caffeinated, it's overhyped, and it actually has the opposite effect on them," Republican pollster Frank Luntz told McClatchy. "I don't know who's writing the speeches for him, but whoever it is has completely misunderstood the people they need to reach."

Trump should shelve his "law and order" language, which is perceived as police assaulting protesters, and campaign on the issue of "public safety," promising to make homes, neighborhoods and streets safe, Luntz said.


He should quit calling his supporters "warriors" and stop referring to them as the "silent majority" -- they are terms that do not appeal to swing voters who think of themselves as "ignored or forgotten" and are looking for a better quality of life, he said.

"It is not too late, it can be rectified, but if he insists on using this language," Luntz said of Trump, "the outcome will be very bad for him in November."

Veterans of past campaigns also told McClatchy that Trump's relentless personal focus on a racially charged set of issues doesn't reach the voters he needs to win reelection and does little to stop a weeks-long polling slide that has positioned him as a clear-cut underdog to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden four months from the election.

That's true even of the many white working-class voters who formed an important part of the president's base during his winning 2016 campaign. A Gallup poll released Monday found that just 38% of Americans approved of the president's job performance in June, well below the more than 46% who voted for Trump during the 2016 presidential election.


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