Trump & Biden Battle Over the Suburbs

On the surface, President Trump’s doubling down on his law-and-order message appears to be working. Polls in key battleground states have tightened since the Republican National Convention, which was heavy on a pro-police and anti-mayhem theme while showcasing a lineup of African Americans who wholeheartedly back the president and reject the racist label the left has tried to pin on him. 

In the days following the convention, plenty of headlines have pushed the theory that swing voters are taking a second look at Trump after growing weary from watching wave after wave of violent racial clashes play out this summer.

The Trump campaign in recent days has repeatedly suggested that its efforts to paint Joe Biden as weak on crime and racial unrest is helping Trump win back suburban voters, especially women, who fueled the 2018 blue wave that swept Democrats back to power in the House of Representatives. 

But is the president’s blunt law-and-order message really starting to attract those sought-after suburban women voters, many of whom have soured on Trump in recent years? Or is the race simply tightening in battleground states because most presidential elections usually do in the final stretch?  

Biden’s Lead Narrows in Top Swing States 

During the GOP convention, CNN’s Don Lemon appeared so rattled by signs that violent racial unrest in cities across the country are turning off voters that he demanded that Biden and Democrats take a stand against the looting, arson and violence or risk losing the election. Lemon has since said he’s satisfied with Biden’s sudden reversal over the last week to denounce the violence and looting, claiming that Biden’s remarks have Trump “on his heels.” 

The polls, however, tell a different, but not yet definitive, story. Polling in the Trump era is rightfully suspect, but it’s still the main measuring stick to assess whether certain campaign strategies are working.

The RealClearPolitics polling averages show Biden’s lead narrowing to 5% or below in all top swing states, including Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

There are early signs that suburban voters are starting to swing toward Trump because of his strong stance against the riots, but there’s not enough evidence yet to say whether that trend will last to November. Winning the suburbs remains a big hill for the president in some battlegrounds; much will depend on his ability to connect to these suburban swing voters, and not just rev up his base on the issue of quelling violent unrest.

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll, conducted at the end of the GOP convention from Aug. 27-28, found Biden leading Trump 47% to 41% overall, but Trump leading Biden 45% to 43% among all suburban voters surveyed. 

Asked to describe the protests that have erupted across the country this summer, 37% of those surveyed said they were “mostly violent,” compared to 28% who said they were “mostly peaceful,” as many prominent Democrats tended to describe them before changing those characterizations the past week.

Suburban voters were slightly more critical, with 41% saying protests have been “mostly violent” and 30% calling them “mostly peaceful.” In the same survey, suburban voters gave Trump a slight edge in their views of his ability to handle crime: 42% said Trump would do better while 40% said Biden would. (That 2% edge was flipped when considering all voters.) 

The survey also showed that violent crime stemming from the rioting is of deep concern to all voters, with 48% of all respondents called it “a very big problem,” compared to 15% who called it “a small problem.” That number is even higher among suburban voters, with 51% regarding violent crime a “very big problem.”

“Every American, from the city to suburb, wants and deserves to feel safe in their communities,” Courtney Parella, Trump’s deputy press secretary, told RealClearPolitics. “Unlike Joe Biden, who stayed silent for months as his supporters led violent riots and destroyed businesses across our great nation, President Trump took action without hesitation to restore law and order and defend our brave men and women in blue who put their lives on the line to keep us safe.” 

Candidates’ Differing Messages in Kenosha, Wis. 

With the race now in the home stretch, both Trump and Biden aren’t letting the coronavirus grind their campaigns to a halt. Both candidates spent the week traveling to key battlegrounds to hone their pitches – moving to the turmoil rather than avoiding it.

In Kenosha, Wis., the Milwaukee suburb that was the scene of the latest rioting and destruction over the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Trump leaned heavily into the law-enforcement theme. Talking to an all-white panel, he referred to the rioting as “domestic terrorism” in “Democrat-run cities” without stressing the need for unity and reconciliation that so many voters of every color would like to hear.

Instead, Trump blamed “reckless far-left politicians” for the ongoing violence and said, “We must give far greater support to our law enforcement.” Afterward, the Biden campaign blasted Trump for taking sides with police on the issue instead of trying to bring the country together.

“Trump failed once again to meet the moment, refusing to utter the words that Wisconsinites and Americans across the country needed to hear today from the president: a condemnation of violence of all kinds, not matter who commits it,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager.

Biden’s messaging was far more nuanced, though his remarks were marred by some distracting gaffes. At one point, he inexplicably stopped a train of thought by saying, “They’ll shoot me,” if he continued talking about it. It was an unfortunate reference amid a community still reeling from the police shooting of Blake the week before, which left him paralyzed.

After meeting with Blake’s family, Biden hosted a listening session with local leaders at a church, where he stressed his commitment to ending racial disparities, as well as the violence and disorder.

“Win or lose, I’m going to go down fighting,” he pledged. “I’m going to go down fighting for racial equality, equity across the board.” He then also warned against violent outpourings of anger, no matter “how angry you are.” 

Trump’s strong alignment with the police is his comfort zone, and the position has big base appeal. But some Republican strategists argue he needs to move beyond it if he wants to win in November.

Even though the Yahoo News/YouGov survey shows that violent protests are now a top voter concern, other polling varies on where crime and unrest rank for voters.

Poll: Crime Is Not Voters’ Top Concern

A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey found that voters as a whole view crime far behind the economy and coronavirus as a top concern. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that Republicans rank crime as the second-most important issue after the economy, but overall, likely voters rank violent crime fifth, well behind the coronavirus, the economy and health care.

Recent polling out of Wisconsin, North Carolina and Arizona suggests Trump still has a long way to go to win over suburban voters, especially suburban women, and some Republicans are worried that touting law and order alone without a more unifying message could prevent Trump from making the inroads he needs.

The demographics in the suburbs are changing, warns Matt Terrill, a GOP strategist and partner at Firehouse Strategies who served as chief of staff to Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“The candidate who talks about handling race relations, public safety and also unifying the country will be the candidate who wins this race,” Terrill told RealClearPolitics. “. . . It’s that balanced approach that at the end of the day is going to resonate with voters.”

Terrill gives the GOP convention planners credit for threading that difficult needle between race relations and law and order, but he said Trump, not just his surrogates, needs to show he’s capable of the same type of healing leadership.

Biden is ahead in three key states that Trump won in 2016 — Arizona, North Carolina and Wisconsin — mainly because suburban women have swung so strongly in favor of Biden, according to a new poll released by Fox News. Suburban women in all three of those states trust Biden over Trump to handle the coronavirus, as well as policing and criminal justice issues. 

Voters can start returning absentee ballots this week in North Carolina and in mid-September in Wisconsin, so it’s critical that each campaign’s message is resonating. In Arizona, voters can start mailing in absentee ballots in early October.

The Fox News poll, conducted Aug. 29-Sept. 1, found that in Arizona, Trump is down 9 points to Biden, 40% to 49%, with Biden is leading among suburban women voters by a whopping 15 points and suburban voters overall by 7. 

In North Carolina, voters are even more divided. While whites back Trump by 23 points, blacks support Biden by 83 points. Rural voters are supporting Trump by 14 points, while suburban voters are swinging to Biden by 19. Among suburban women, that number jumps to a 31-point lead for Biden.

In Wisconsin, women voters favor Biden by 17 points, while men are equally divided, favoring Trump by 1 point. Suburban women in the Badger State back Biden by 14 points, but among all suburban voters, Biden maintains just an 8-point advantage. 

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.

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