The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s rhetoric is driving away suburban swing voters. He needs them to win.

President Trump tees off during a round of golf at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., on Saturday. (Al Drago/For The Washington Post)

If President Trump wants to understand why Joe Biden has clear leads against him in swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, he need look no further than his rally in Tulsa on June 20. The president did not once mention George Floyd or express solidarity with peaceful protesters marching for racial justice. His speech was combative, defiant and, no doubt, thrilled his supporters. But it contained barely a word designed to persuade anyone who was not already persuaded to support the president.

To win in November, Trump can’t just rely on the enthusiasm of his base. He needs to win suburban swing voters. In 2016, he won the suburban vote by five percentage points, and those same voters gave him his narrow margin of victory in states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Florida. While many of those voters defected in 2018 to give Democrats control of the House, they had been planning on coming home to Trump this year. A New York Times/Siena College poll in November found that almost two-thirds of voters in six battleground states who cast their ballots for Trump in 2016, but then voted for House Democrats in 2018, planned to back the president in 2020.

That has changed. In the wake of recent racial unrest, Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has opened a commanding 25-point lead over Trump in the suburbs. Two-thirds of Americans say the president has made racial tensions worse since the killing of Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Trump’s uncompromising rhetoric and retweets are driving away swing voters who don’t want to be associated with a senior citizen shouting “white power!

There is still time for the president to turn things around, and he has one thing going for him: The economic recovery is happening much sooner than anyone expected. We were supposed to lose more than 8 million jobs in May, but instead the economy created 2.5 million. Economists predict we will see similar jobs numbers in the coming months, and that the economy will grow at a 20 percent or even 30 percent clip in the third quarter and continue double-digit growth in the fall.

That means Trump will likely be riding a wave of great economic news going into November. With the economy regaining steam, Trump can ask swing voters: Do you want to keep this recovery going? Or will you risk it all by putting Democrats in charge? It’s a question that will resonate because, despite his negative poll numbers, the one area in which voters still trust Trump way more than Biden is the economy.

Many Americans who don’t approve of Trump know it is in their own self-interest to reelect him. But Trump has to give those voters permission to vote in their own self-interest. Right now, he is not doing so. Meanwhile, Biden is giving those voters permission to defect. He is positioning himself as an inoffensive moderate who has pushed back against his party’s socialist bent — saying we need to reform, not dismantle, the police, and embracing incremental change on health care by rejecting Medicare-for-all in favor of a public option.

Biden has risen in the polls not despite his isolation, but because of it. The less he speaks, the less likely he is to commit gaffes that call into question his mental acuity. Eventually, Biden will have to come out of his basement, answer media questions and debate Trump. When he does, the race will tighten and Trump will seek to define the former vice president as a “Trojan Horse for socialism” who will wreck the economy just as it is coming back.

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But making Biden unpalatable won’t be enough for Trump. He needs to make himself more palatable to reluctant voters, by leavening his tough rhetoric with expressions of empathy and compassion. Each time he rightly criticizes the mobs defacing our nation’s monuments, he needs to say that he supports peaceful protesters and their cries for racial justice. Each time he criticizes Democrats for wanting to defund the police, he needs to talk about his support for police reform and criminal justice reform. Each time he tweets about law and order, he needs to tweet about racial reconciliation.

Last fall, when the economy was strong, Trump unveiled a new campaign theme when he declared, “Whether you love me or hate me, you have got to vote for me.” If he does not stop inflaming and start uniting, millions of Americans will say “No, we don’t.”

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