• Tue. Apr 20th, 2021

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How Trump’s Convention Has Become a Crucial Play for the Suburbs

It is one of President Trump’s clearest paths to re-election: winning back the suburbs in a handful of swing states that drifted from the Republican Party in the 2018 midterms. And that imperative has been vividly apparent each night of the party’s national convention, with speakers and videos that are trying to recast Mr. Trump’s divisive record, which had hurt the G.O.P. two years ago.

There have been glowing personal tributes from women, scenes of friendly banter between Mr. Trump and immigrants and a Black family, and stories from people he reached out to in times of despair. If all political conventions cast their candidates in the best possible light, the Republican National Convention has been going all-out for bright and sunny.

But it was also an acknowledgment by the president’s campaign that appealing to his right-wing base will not be enough to win re-election, and that voters who have soured on him after three and a half years are not responding to a strategy that leans heavily into attacking his opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., and other Democrats as radicals and extremists.

Instead of sustained attacks on Mr. Biden, Wednesday night featured personal speeches from a trio of female Trump aides, who pointed to their own experiences of Mr. Trump, describing a version of him that is rarely seen in public and effectively asking voters to take their word for it.

“I have seen firsthand, many times the President comforting and encouraging a child who has lost a parent, a parent who has lost a child,” said Kellyanne Conway, the outgoing White House adviser. Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, talked about getting a personal call from Mr. Trump after undergoing a preventive mastectomy. Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and a campaign adviser, described the Trump family as “warm and caring” and “down to earth.”

Trump advisers said on Wednesday that they did not intend to change people’s minds about the president. Voter opinions about him have been remarkably impervious to the good and bad news about him, fluctuating little since he took office. Rather, the aides said, they were seeking to remind suburban voters of policies Mr. Trump has supported — like granting citizenship for legal immigrants and reducing harsh criminal statutes — that will give them something to hang onto in the voting booth in November.

In 2016, exit polls showed Mr. Trump winning suburban areas, 49 percent to 45 percent, helping to offset his deep deficit among city voters. By 2018’s midterm elections, Democrats had caught up: Each party captured 49 percent of votes cast in the suburbs in House races that year, according to exit polls.

Now, Mr. Trump’s job approval is worse among suburbanites than even among city dwellers. Sixty-one percent of suburban voters disapproved of his job performance while just 38 percent approved, according to a Fox News poll this month. Among suburban women in particular, Mr. Trump’s net approval rating was only 34 percent.

Rarely, if ever, have political image makers succeeded in scaffolding over the most blemished parts of a presidential candidate’s record during a few nights of prime time programming. And no campaign has attempted that feat with a candidate like Mr. Trump, whose entire political persona has been built on playing into white fears of immigrants and minorities — beginning with his campaign announcement five years ago warning of Mexican immigrants: “They‘re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

“A couple nice video clips and speeches from people of color in a convention isn’t going to do it because these voters know who Donald Trump is,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “It’s going to be what happens in the next two months with his actions and his off-the-cuff rhetoric.”

To prevail in November, Mr. Trump will need to improve his performance in swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina where his appeal with white women helped him win in 2016. Over all, he received the support of 53 percent of white women, including 51 percent of those with college degrees.

Sarah Longwell, a longtime Republican strategist who opposes Mr. Trump, said the decision to show a version of him that most Americans don’t see was right, insofar as voters were looking for something to point to in order to justify their support for a president who has encouraged racist conspiracy theories, lashed out at women and repeatedly insulted the intelligence of his Black critics.

“If there are people who are looking for permission to vote for him,” Ms. Longwell said, “it does give them something to point to.”

On television advertising, the Biden campaign has vastly outspent the Trump campaign, with $57.7 million on television in the month of August compared to $24.5 million by the Trump campaign. On Tuesday, the Trump campaign pulled down all their broadcast ads, and have none scheduled to air until Sept. 8; the campaign pledged to return to broadcast “well before” that date, and it still has a national cable presence.

On Facebook, the Trump campaign and allied committees have spent $22.8 million, and the Biden campaign has spent $17.7 million in August.

But a monthslong ad campaign seeking to sow fear in the suburbs, using selectively edited scenes to exaggerate violence from the summer protest movement, has done little to win back the suburban voters that Republicans lost in 2018, which cost them control of the House of Representatives.

“We haven’t seen anything that has shifted from what we saw in the blue wave in 2018 where white college-educated women in the suburbs in particular had enough of his caustic approach,” Mr. Murray said.

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Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Before the convention, the Trump campaign was running a trio of ads that depicted American cities under siege, warping momentary scenes of violence from largely peaceful protests earlier this year into scenes of chaos. One included a staged scene of a break-in at a senior citizens home.

If the softer focus on Mr. Trump at the convention does not square with the ads that his campaign has been producing, it was also incongruous with the messaging at most other points during the convention. Mr. Trump has given top billing to some of the most provocative defenders of his style of politics. The result has been a program that can seem discordant — with one segment featuring the activist Charlie Kirk declaring Mr. Trump “the bodyguard of Western civilization” who is protecting Americans from “bitter, deceitful, vengeful activists,” and in the next, a video with two millennial Latina women praising Mr. Trump for the federal loan that kept their small business afloat during the pandemic lockdown.

Interviews with several voters in swing states on Wednesday found skepticism toward the convention’s portrayal of Mr. Trump.

“I’m certainly aware he’s trying to win back people he’s lost,” said Maureen Thomas, 61, a resident of suburban Detroit who voted for the Republican nominee in 2012, Mitt Romney, and now supports Mr. Biden. Ms. Thomas, a retired lawyer, found the president’s presiding over a naturalization ceremony on Tuesday night, after years of hostility to immigrants, “fake, false, a show.”

Jeffrey Timlin, 26, a registered Republican in Montgomery County outside Philadelphia, said that the convention’s portrait of Mr. Trump “just doesn’t feel authentic.” Mr. Timlin, an engineer, plans to vote for Mr. Biden, but said he is jaded about both candidates and their parties.

“I think that the idea of changing and putting Biden in would take at least a little away from this big public smoke screen that has been the Trump presidency,” he said.

The image of Mr. Trump at the convention is a far cry from the president who has spent his first term focused on strengthening his relationship with his conservative base of support. For Americans who hoped Mr. Trump would become the leader he vowed to be in his victory speech in 2016 — “I will be a president for all Americans,” he declared — his record and priorities in office rarely reflect that pledge.

“That is the first and most important test of leadership that he failed immediately and has failed every day since,” said Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive and Republican who ran against Mr. Trump in 2016. She is now supporting Mr. Biden, and encouraging other Republicans to do so.

But Ms. Fiorina cautioned that Democrats should not assume that swing voters will tune out Mr. Trump’s appeals just because they have a problem with the messenger.

“Most Americans don’t believe that Trump is ‘the guardian of Western civilization’ for heaven’s sake,” Ms. Fiorina said. “But I believe that Biden and the Democratic Party, in order to win, need to keep their eyes on where the majority of Americans are.”

And Republicans do see openings where they believe that Democrats are vulnerable. For instance, if eruptions of violence in cities like Kenosha, Wis., continue or worsen, Republicans believe there are suburban voters who will blame Democrats, even those who say they are with the majority of Americans who support the recent demonstrations against racial injustice.

What many Republicans say they find frustrating is the way Mr. Trump’s provocations and outbursts tend to obscure the disagreement they have been trying to raise about the Democratic Party’s leadership and policies, like the push from some on the party’s left to “defund” police departments. Despite the soft-sell approach that some speakers have taken during the first two nights of the convention, it is the loudest voices — the ones that mimic Mr. Trump’s attacks — that often break through most memorably.

The Trump campaign is trying to give the milder moments a longer shelf life, quickly cutting them up into ads and sending them out across the Trump campaign’s vast digital messaging operation. By Wednesday morning, the campaign had clipped scenes from the pardon of Joe Ponder, a convicted bank robber, and Melania Trump’s Tuesday night speech, turning them into Facebook ads.

The Biden campaign, for its part, has been spending heavily to try to tamp down any potential convention bump for Mr. Trump. While the Trump campaign is dark on broadcast, the Biden campaign will spend about $20 million on television ads in battleground states.

But the post-convention glow around any candidate has traditionally lasted only as long as the candidate has stayed on message. And that is never a guarantee with Mr. Trump.

“In 1988, they thought that Dukakis had a great convention. In 2004, everyone agreed that John Kerry had a good convention,” said Russ Schriefer, a Republican consultant who has worked on conventions for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

“Having a good convention,” he added, “isn’t in itself a great predictor of winning.”

Trip Gabriel and Giovanni Russonello contributed reporting.