Democrat Joseph R. Biden holds a roughly 10-point lead in national polls four months before Election Day, and President Trump’s base is increasingly worried.
COVID-19 cases are surging again in many states, racial tensions have roiled the nation, and the strength and speed of the economic recovery are in doubt. And for two months in a row, Mr. Biden has outraised the president in campaign money.
Three-fourths of Americans say they believe the country is on the wrong track, and Mr. Trump’s job approval rating this summer is near an all-time low. Many conservatives are wondering whether they are watching the gains of the past three-plus years slip away.
“In talking to people from around the country, I think conservatives are very rattled right now,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in politics and in the conservative movement at a time where they feel more unsure and more rattled.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, said he agrees with critiques that the president has yet to effectively outline his vision for a second term. He is hoping for the president to focus on five or six agenda items, including a yearlong payroll tax holiday.
“Now he’s got to do it. That’s part of the next step,” Mr. Gingrich said in an interview. “I don’t worry about the polls; I just worry about getting our act together. You get our act together, the polls will take care of themselves.”
Billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, a major Trump backer from 2016, has decided not to donate to the president’s campaign this year, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. Mr. Thiel, who gave $1.25 million to the Trump campaign and related groups four years ago, “has soured” on the president’s prospects in recent weeks because of the state of the economy and an expected double-digit unemployment rate in November, the paper reported.
The peril for the president’s reelection prospects crystallized for some Trump supporters at his “comeback” campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20. Although the rally delivered record TV viewership, campaign officials overestimated attendance and the president ended up speaking to an arena with thousands of empty seats.
“I’m going to look back on the Tulsa rally and say it will turn out to be a very positive thing for the Trump campaign,” said Mr. Schlapp, whose wife Mercedes is a senior adviser to the campaign. “I do think it was a wake-up call. I’m not saying we were on a trajectory where we weren’t going to win, but I think it made everybody realize like how solidified our political enemy is, between this kind of half-with-it nominee, with a news media that’s 98% allied against the president, and social unrest funded by people with very radical politics who want to take the president down and actually want to take America down.”
On the positive side for Mr. Trump, he said, is that the spreading alarm is motivating conservatives like never before.
“They’re not unsure about what they need to do and who they’re going to support, which is the best news of all for the president,” he said.
The president received another boost last week when the government reported that employers created 4.8 million jobs in June, the second straight month of big job growth and a sign that the recovery is speeding up. The question is whether Mr. Trump can convince voters that he is the right candidate to lead a return to prosperity.
“We built the greatest economy in the history of the world, and we’re now doing it again,” Mr. Trump said last week. “And I think we’ll do even better the second time than we did the first time, unless somebody comes along and says, ‘Let’s raise taxes on everybody.’”
Trump campaign officials say that public polls sponsored by media outlets are deliberately biased against the president and that their internal polling gives them confidence that Mr. Trump will prevail against a “defined” Mr. Biden.
The trouble is, the president hasn’t succeeded at defining Mr. Biden as a liberal who will raise taxes, increase regulations and abandon the field to lawless extremists in his party.
The Democrat has spent most of the past three months hunkering down in his home in Delaware, enjoying what Democrats and some Republicans view as the president’s self-inflicted wounds on Twitter and in policy, such as his pledge to veto a defense bill if it changes the names of military bases named for Confederate figures.
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said a fascinating struggle is going on between the two camps during an unprecedented election season coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic. He said part of the Democrats’ strategy is to try to shame the president into suspending any more campaign rallies because of public health concerns.
Campaign rallies also happen to be the forum in which the president excels at presenting his message about his opponents.
“Biden’s running what I call the bunker-and-mask strategy,” Mr. O’Connell said. “The less you talk, the better off you are. Frankly, it’s working. Trump wants to force Biden out of his bunker, and Biden doesn’t want Trump ever to leave the … White House. This is a great race with four months to go.”
He said the dynamic has revealed that even though Democrats believe they are “in a better position, they don’t think that Biden can win this on his own.”
“Hence, not only is he running a bunker-and-mask strategy, he doesn’t want Trump to ever leave the White House,” Mr. O’Connell said. “And there’s no way that Trump is ever going to be able to define Biden in terms of the national conversation unless he leaves the White House.”
Mr. Biden said last week that it’s “the most unusual campaign in modern history.”
“I’m going to follow the doc’s orders, not just for me, but for the country, and that means that I am not going to be holding rallies,” Mr. Biden said. “I’d much rather be out there with people because that’s where I get the greatest feel. I can get a sense of what, by the look in their eyes, by the plaintive voices that they have, and what they’re concerned about.”
But the presumptive Democratic nominee said he has been surprised by his ability to reach more potential voters online than in person.
“They tell me 200 million people have watched what I have done from home, in the half a dozen things we’ve gone out and done,” Mr. Biden said. “And so the irony is, I think we’re probably communicating directly in detail with more people than we would have otherwise.”
Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said Mr. Biden is showing Americans that “he’s afraid to face them.”
“There are a lot of Americans who know of Joe Biden, but not very many who know much about Joe Biden,” Mr. Murtaugh told The Washington Times. “And that’s what he’s trying to conceal. It is our job, and what we are doing is to define Joe Biden — his 44-year record of failure as a Washington, D.C., Beltway insider. That is what he is trying to avoid. It won’t work. And every day that goes by that he hides from Americans is more evidence that he is not qualified to be the president of the United States.”
Mr. Biden said last week during a rare public appearance that he has no intention of holding campaign rallies. Trump campaign officials on Sunday announced that the president’s next rally will be held on Saturday in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
“President Trump is eager to return to the campaign trail and to keep campaigning and keep connecting with Americans,” Mr. Murtaugh said. “That is where he is most effective, and is without question more effective than Joe Biden. It’s no secret that Joe Biden, the Democrats and many in the national media would love to keep President Trump off the campaign trail. But he is determined to keep meeting Americans in person and speaking to them directly.”
Mr. Gingrich said the president doesn’t need to define Mr. Biden’s negative qualities. He said a more effective campaign strategy would be to link him with the far-left policies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
“The key part of that is to define Biden, Pelosi and Schumer as a team,” Mr. Gingrich said. “I think by himself, Biden is not nearly as formidable. I think they would turn the whole country into a cross between California and Seattle.”
The former speaker envisions a three-part campaign for the president in the final four months of the race.
“One, keep getting the economy growing,” he said. “Get up every morning and say, ‘What are we doing today to keep the economy going?’ Two, define the Pelosi-Biden-Schumer machine and what they would do — my favorite being $1,200 checks for every illegal immigrant. And the third thing is to come up with a visionary set of probably five or six ideas.
“I think that’s a very winning strategy,” he said.