NEW YORK – President Donald Trump will try to reintroduce himself — and his party — to voters this week at the Republican National Convention.
It will be no easy task.
Over the last four years, the GOP has been fundamentally redefined by the instinct, attitude and social media posts of the most divisive president in the modern era. Given an opportunity to present a more thoughtful message during this week's national convention, the party must decide whether it has the capacity or willingness to expand its appeal beyond the president's die-hard base.
A collection of Republican officials, Trump's allies and adversaries alike, described this week as a pivotal moment for their party as the coronavirus pandemic rages, the economy slumps and two hurricanes take aim at the Gulf Coast. Some believe it's already too late for a president who has spent years alienating broad swaths of the electorate, particularly women and college-educated voters. Others suggest that this week offers Trump a genuine opportunity to improve his prospects 10 weeks before the election.
Longtime Republican pollster Frank Luntz has a simple message for Trump and his campaign: Grow or die.
“He does not win the election even if he wins 100% of Trump voters,” Luntz said, citing the president's weak numbers with swing voters and a surge of new voters who lean left.
“It’s vital to expand the base," Luntz continued. "I don’t think anyone’s telling him this. I don’t sense he realizes it."
Trump has not been helping his cause.
In the days leading up to the GOP convention, he praised a group of far-right extremists who believe Democrats are led by satanists and pedophiles; he cheered a Republican congressional candidate who is openly Islamophobic; and perhaps most importantly, he has failed to contain the worst public health threat in a century as roughly 1,000 Americans continue to die each day.
He sought to address concerns about his handling of the pandemic on Sunday by announcing the emergency authorization of convalescent plasma for coronavirus patients. The blood plasma, taken from patients who have recovered from the coronavirus and rich in antibodies, may provide benefits to those battling with the disease. But the evidence has been inconclusive as to how it works or how best to administer it.
Still, Trump is facing a new revolt from a subset of Republican operatives who held private discussions in recent weeks about creating a new political party for conservatives who can no longer stomach the president's GOP. The party, the operatives say, seems to have abandoned its longstanding commitment to limited government, free markets and a muscular foreign policy. Such discussions are largely on hold as Election Day nears, but the anti-Trump voices from within his own party are getting louder.
A flood of Republican national security officials, including some who worked in the Trump administration, warned last week that Trump represents a legitimate danger to national security and should not be reelected. Last week's Democratic National Convention featured several high-profile Republicans, including former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who endorsed the Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.
The president's allies dismiss such Republican critics as an insignificant faction of “Never Trumpers” who have little influence in today's GOP.
"Four years ago, a lot of people were ‘Never Trump’ or skeptical of Trump. Other than in Washington, that’s all but gone away," said former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who supports the president's reelection. “From a party standpoint, he’s actually extremely strong right now.”
Indeed, Gallup recently reported that Trump holds a 90% approval rating among Republicans. His approval with independents, however, sits at 39% and just 5% among Democrats.
Even more worrisome for Trump's allies is the overwhelming majority of the nation that believes the country is headed in the wrong direction under his guidance. Just 13% of Americans are generally satisfied with the way things are going in the United States, Gallup found earlier in the month.
Trump supporters like Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves hope the president will stay focused on the economy, the issue where voters are most satisfied with his leadership, but many are also encouraging him to lean into darker themes, including the nation's culture wars and the prospect of a complete Democratic takeover in Washington this fall.
“If the Democrats are successful at winning both the House and the Senate as well as the presidency, and we give them two years of packing policies, then the country that my daughters are going to grow up in in their teens and in their 20's and in theirs 30's is going to be very different than the country that I grew up in,” said Reeves, who will be present in North Carolina on Monday as Republican delegates nominate Trump. “And that worries me.”
Trump's convention organizers insist they will put forward a positive convention, but the president also appears intent on trying to seize on the nation’s cultural divides, particularly around issues of racial injustice and policing, drawing on grievances to motivate his largely white base.
The GOP lineup will feature figures on the conservative media circuit with the hope that they can deliver red meat for the president’s loyal supporters. Some Republicans whose political rise was first fueled by the tea party, including Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, will also speak and potentially present themselves as heirs to Trump in 2024.
The convention will include a handful of faces that can speak to a more diverse America. They include some who voted against Trump four years ago and Alice Johnson, a Black non-violent drug offender whom Trump granted clemency.
Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a lifelong Republican who appeared at the Democratic National Convention, said she hopes Trump will try to broaden the GOP coalition this week, but she isn't holding her breath.
“You want to see a more open party. You want to see a party that’s going to be reaching out to people who are different,” Whitman said. “But I'm expecting more of the same: the darkness, the riots in the streets, the country’s falling apart and it’s all the Democrats fault.”
She fears that the Republican Party she's known and loved her entire life might be broken beyond repair if Trump wins a second term. She said she'd be open to joining a new party for disaffected conservatives if so.
“That may be the only way to go. The Republican Party started as a third party when it was born,” Whitman said. “If the only people left standing are the QAnon-type far-right people, I don’t see how we can build off that.”
Bill Kristol, a leading conservative figure in the fight against Trump, said there's only one thing the president could do at the convention to win him over: “I’d like to hear Trump say he’s decided not to run for reelection. That would cheer me up."