As Trump kicks off reelection, his party worries he’s an anchor.
President Trump formally kicked off his re-election campaign Tuesday in front of thousands of fans at a boisterous rally in the heart of battleground Florida, even as top strategists in his own party worry that his weak political standing threatens the rest of the Republican ticket.
Trump reacted angrily last week to leaked internal surveys conducted by his own campaign that showed him trailing in virtually every swing state on the map. He fired several pollsters, and his campaign manager insisted that Trump’s numbers had improved.
But public polls conducted more recently mirror some of the troubling indicators that Trump’s own polling found. What’s more, in interviews, half a dozen prominent Republican pollsters working on campaigns around the country said their own results showed a president who starts his reelection bid from behind.
“His numbers are problematic,” said one top Republican pollster, who asked for anonymity to describe private survey data. “Folks are nervous, but no one is surprised.”
The Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign have begun holding conference calls with Senate campaigns in some of those states, sharing polling and data analytics studies assessing their chances next November.
In the last month, several public polls have showed Trump trailing former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democratic contenders by double digits in Michigan, and by wide margins in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Three consecutive polls have showed Trump trailing Biden in deep-red Texas, though he led other Democratic rivals. And a survey from Quinnipiac University Poll of Florida voters released Tuesday showed Trump trailing six of his Democratic rivals.
A survey released Tuesdayby Firehouse Strategies, a Republican firm run by veterans of Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) campaign team, and the data analytics firm Optimus found Trump trailing Biden in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the lynchpins of his 2016 victory.
The common threads through all of those surveys, analysts said, are Trump’s dismally low approval rating and the inelasticity in those numbers. Voters have formed hard opinions about Trump, whether favorably or unfavorably, and few seem willing or able to move off those feelings.
“Trump’s numbers are really sticky,” said Alex Conant, a partner at Firehouse Strategies. “It’s just going to be really hard for him to move his numbers up, and similarly it’s going to be hard for the Democrats to move his numbers down.”
Some Republican pollsters say they are less concerned about the current state of Trump’s numbers because he is being matched against a hypothetical Democrat who has yet to experience the rigors and scrutiny of a general election.
“If we learned anything from the 2016 election, it should be that polls this far out from election day are meaningless,” said Blair Ellis, the RNC’s press secretary. “The RNC’s world-class data program that helped Trump win in 2016 shows us that reported polling is wrong, once again, and Americans across the country are just as enthusiastic about him and his record-setting list of accomplishments as they were when they first sent him to the White House.”
Others said they are less confident in the stability of the political environment, given global tumult broadly and the challenges facing the polling industry more specifically.
“There are plenty of examples in recent political history where candidates have come from far behind to win,” the Republican pollster said. “Those candidates have been willing to make adjustments. Not sure this candidate is at all willing.”
Trump has become so inextricably linked with the Republican base that party strategists worry his low poll numbers could act as a drag on the rest of the ticket. Seven Republican senators are seeking reelection in states that are either swing states or where Trump has trailed in recent polls.
Those Republicans include the three most vulnerable seeking reelection this year, Sens. Martha McSally (Ariz.), Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Susan Collins (Maine). But Trump also appears vulnerable in states represented by Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), David Perdue (R-Ga.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Texas has become a particular concern for Republicans worried about Trump’s fortunes. For years, Texas Democrats have waited for a surge that would finally make a deep-red state competitive — and they nearly scored that long-sought victory in 2018, when Sen. Ted Cruz (R) survived a spirited challenge from former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D).
Cornyn is taking no chances in his own bid for a fourth term. He ended March with $7.4 million in the bank. He is likely to face M.J. Hegar, a business consultant and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who narrowly lost a challenge to Rep. John Carter (R) in 2018.
The most recent survey, conducted by The Texas Tribune, found 50 percent of voters would definitely or probably vote to reelect Trump, while 50 percent would definitely or probably not vote to reelect him. In that survey, 52 percent approved of the job Trump is doing in office, while just 37 percent said the same of Cornyn.
“The president should win Texas, but it is no longer a fait accompli,” said Rob Jesmer, a top Cornyn adviser. “They are going to have to fight for it because I promise you this, the Democrats are already fighting for it.”
At least some of those Republicans up for election next year may be able to find enough crossover voters to survive even if Trump loses their states. In 2016, 17 Republican senators won their elections by wider margins than President Trump won their states.
But in battleground states, those Republicans who overperformed Trump did so by narrow margins. Rubio took 52 percent of the vote, 3 points higher than Trump’s 49 percent. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) won 51 percent of the vote, just over 1 percentage point more than Trump’s 49.8 percent. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) bested Trump’s take by a single percentage point, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) scored 3 points higher than Trump.
“Just because Trump loses a state doesn’t mean the Republican Senate candidate can’t win. Trump is going to lose some votes among Republicans who simply don’t like him, but they still may vote for the Senate candidates. Similarly, there may be some soft Democrats who would never vote for Trump but might vote for Joni Ernst,” Conant said.
Republicans can survive if Trump loses their states by narrow margins, but “outperforming Trump by 7 points is hard,” Conant said. “That just puts us on defense in a lot of states.”
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