WASHINGTON - Just weeks after a Republican National Convention dominated by calls for "law and order," President Donald Trump's campaign has returned to an almost exclusively economic message in its advertising.
It's the latest strategic pivot by the Trump campaign, as polls continue to show Joe Biden holding a steady advantage in the presidential race with less than seven weeks until Election Day, and only a few weeks from the start of early voting in many key states.
All seven new TV ads released by the Trump campaign this month to air in battleground states and on national cable - including two new spots unveiled on Thursday - make an economic case for the president over his Democratic opponent. None of the commercials mention the crime and protests that were prevalent in the campaign's previous messaging and repeated in full-throated speeches at the party's convention.
"Joe Biden will raise taxes and kill jobs," says a woman in one of the new ads, followed by an older man who adds, "President Trump is the right person for this nation's economy."
The second new ad, set to run in Arizona, features a cowboy-hat wearing car wash dealer who says he was able to expand his workforce by more than 20-fold. "I credit President Trump with every one of those jobs,"the man says. "Joe Biden hasn't done anything but cozy up to the Chinese."
Even as the country has been ravaged for much of the year by the coronavirus and racial discord, the economy has consistently been the president's strongest political hand. And with Americans eager to return to some type of normalcy as soon as possible, the Trump team hopes it will become "the defining issue of the race," as one campaign aide put it.
"Even in surveys that are otherwise very tough on him, majorities of voters prefer him to Joe Biden on this issue," said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster. "Focusing on the economy is Trump trying to play to his strengths, in hopes that Americans will be more concerned with how we recover economically from the impact of the virus, versus litigating whether or not his administration pursued the right strategy in containing the virus in the first place - an issue on which Joe Biden holds more of an advantage."
New polling released Thursday in the battleground states of Arizona, North Carolina and Florida all showed voters listing the economy as their top issue, with health care and criminal justice concerns even ranking higher than the pandemic. Kaiser Family Foundation/Cook Political report surveys found Biden holding a 5-point lead in Arizona, but essentially locked in dead heats with Trump in North Carolina and Florida. On the litany of issues tested, Trump held only one clear-cut advantage: A 10-point lead on which candidate was more trusted to steer the economy. On criminal justice, the candidates were tied, a sign of why the Trump campaign has shifted its focus away from the rioting and unrest that has occurred in places such as Minneapolis and Portland, Ore.
"Trump needs voters in the middle if he's going to win reelection," said Travis Ridout, the co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads. "His issue focus in his television advertising has definitely turned away from the potentially divisive issues of race, policing and protests, which didn't seem to move the needle much earlier this summer."
Wesleyan found that Biden has mentioned the coronavirus in more than half of his TV airings over the past month whereas Trump has only cited the pandemic in 28% of his commercials.
Central to the Trump campaign strategy is presenting Biden as a mortal risk to any potential recovery, as one of the ads attempts to do by including the former vice president's own words promising a tax hike. Biden has pledged to raise the corporate tax and taxes on higher income earners but has said no one making under $400,000 annually would face new taxes.
"Joe Biden could never handle the economy after COVID. There's no way. It would be a disaster," says a small business owner named Kim in another spot that went up this week. "If Joe Biden gets elected we can kiss goodbye to the economy that we've been enjoying," says another female small business owner in a commercial airing in Florida.
The Biden campaign has responded with its own economic focus, releasing a 60-second spot on Thursday that touts his plan to invest in American products and jobs, a message squarely aimed at manufacturers in the Midwest. A second ad features a Pennsylvania voter testifying that his 2016 vote for Trump was a mistake.
America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC, has not totally given up on the law and order message, but is targeting it to specific markets. For instance, in Charlotte, North Carolina, the super PAC uses a message from a former police officer named Stephanie to accuse Biden of wanting to take money away from law enforcement. But in Winston-Salem and Raleigh, voters see the same officer lamenting Biden's plan for new taxes, without mentioning safety or security.
Asked if the law and order message is as powerful as the economic case, Brian Walsh, president of America First Action, said, "It's somewhat geographically dependent, but the answer is yes."
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