Republicans are growing increasingly concerned about poll numbers that show a rising Democratic wave just four weeks before Election Day as President Trump suffers one of the most brutal two-week stretches of his first term at precisely the wrong moment.
For months, Republicans and Democrats alike have confidently predicted that former Vice President Joe Biden’s lead in national and battleground state polls would tighten.
But after a new string of jarring numbers, some Republicans are beginning to fear that voters hesitant to say they will back Trump are not coming home and that the few remaining undecided voters are breaking decidedly against him — and the Republican Party as a whole.
“The conventional wisdom among Republican strategists and pollsters was that a natural tightening tends to occur post-Labor Day,” said Ken Spain, a longtime Republican strategist. “The events over the course of the last few days have thrown that into chaos.”
In just the last two weeks, Trump has suffered a steady drumbeat of bad news: The New York Times reported he paid just $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the White House and during his first year as president.
The number of Americans who have died from the coronavirus topped 200,000.
Trump has refused to say he would peacefully cede power in the event he loses the election.
His announcement of a new nominee to fill a Supreme Court seat became an apparent coronavirus superspreader event, after Trump, first lady Melania Trump, two U.S. senators and others contracted the virus. Trump spent three nights at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after requiring supplemental oxygen at the White House.
In the midst of it all, Trump blew his opportunity to change the trajectory of the presidential contest with a bombastic, haranguing performance on the debate stage with Biden in which Trump declined to denounce white supremacy.
In what has been a remarkably stable political environment, polling is beginning to show substantial movement away from the GOP.
A poll conducted for CNN, released on Tuesday, showed Biden leading Trump by a 57 percent to 41 percent margin. An NBC-Wall Street Journal survey released over the weekend showed Biden ahead by 14 points. Even Rasmussen, the Republican-leaning pollster that Trump so often touts, found Biden ahead by 8 in their most recent survey.
Virtually every battleground poll is breaking against Trump as well. Recent surveys put Biden well ahead in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and New Hampshire. Trump leads by small margins in usually solidly Republican states like Texas, Missouri and South Carolina. Internal Republican polls show Trump only narrowly leading in states like Montana and Kansas.
“These last three weeks have just felt terrible,” said Jai Chabria, a Republican strategist in Ohio. “It feels like the Democrats have momentum going into this last month, certainly, but I don’t think anyone knows what that means.”
Most Republicans pointed to Trump’s debate performance as the final straw in many voters’ minds. While his core supporters may have loved Trump’s fiery attacks on Biden and his family, those who were anxious or undecided about backing Trump decidedly did not.
“People don’t want him in their living room for four more years,” said one prominent Republican strategist, who ask for anonymity to candidly assess Trump’s standing. “They just are tired of him.”
There are growing signs that Trump’s dismal polling is beginning to impact down-ballot Republican contests. Voters increasingly see little difference between national party figures and their local elected officials.
“We’re sort of evolving into a parliamentary system,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We need the president to run competitively.”
While both parties have focused on a handful of Republican-held seats as key to control of the Senate, Democrats in recent days have become much more optimistic about an expanded battlefield.
Democrats are optimistic about their candidates challenging Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). The leading Democratic super PAC has invested heavily in Kansas, a state that has not sent a Democrat to the Senate for nearly a century.
House Democrats are defending a relatively small number of seats held by candidates who helped the party reclaim the majority in the 2018 midterm elections. Instead, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has expanded their list of Republican targets.
The DCCC said Tuesday it will launch ads targeting GOP Reps. Don Young (Alaska), Chip Roy (Texas), Jim Hagedorn (Minn.), French Hill (Ark.) and Lee Zeldin (N.Y.) — all of whom represent districts Trump won by more than 10 percentage points in 2016. The House Majority PAC said Tuesday it will advertise heavily in districts held by Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Ann Wagner (R-Mo.).
“Republicans have ruined this year for many Americans. Can you blame voters for wanting to ruin their election night?” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who heads the DCCC. “No matter what the national environment looks like, we’ve set ourselves up for wins across the board.”
Even if Republicans suffer steep losses this November, the party is poised to gain a few seats it lost in the 2018 midterms.
Polls show Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) trailing Republican nominee Tommy Tuberville. House Republicans are optimistic about their chances to reclaim seats held by Reps. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.) and Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), and Democratic outside groups are running ads to defend Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Susie Lee (D-Nev.) and Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), signs that the party does not take their elections for granted.
But four weeks before Election Day, there is more cloud than silver lining for the GOP. Trump’s disastrous few weeks have trickled down to the rest of his party.
“If the bottom falls out on the president,” Cole said, “it’s going to be a long night for everybody.”