Throughout his first run for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald J. Trump derided teleprompters as a silly stamp of political insiderism. “I say we should outlaw teleprompters,” he said at a rally in 2015, “for anybody running for president.”
But as Mr. Trump accepted his party’s nomination at the 2016 Republican National Convention, he read his speech from, yes, a teleprompter. That night he stayed on message, outlining his “America first” ideology and casting himself as a defender of “the forgotten men and women of our country.”
And on Thursday, facing a large (and largely unmasked) crowd during the R.N.C., Mr. Trump again read a lengthy speech from a teleprompter.
“We are one national family,” Mr. Trump said, a much different tone than at his freewheeling news conferences. “And we will always protect, love and care for each other.”
His attempt at a softer touch and more disciplined message is clearly designed to counteract the main criticism voters have of Mr. Trump: that his personality and his public statements are abrasive, rude and unfiltered.
Indeed, as reviled as many of his policies are among voters on the left, Americans over all are actually far more likely to say they are bothered by his personal foibles than by his politics.
Ed Goeas, a veteran Republican pollster, said that many traditionally Republican voters and independents have no major problem with the president’s policies, but can’t stomach his public persona. “There are those who like his policies but really are turned off by his persona,” Mr. Goeas said.
Until the coronavirus pandemic, he added, Mr. Trump’s strong suit had been the thriving economy. Most voters are still about evenly split, according to polls, on whether Mr. Trump or Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee, would be a better steward of the economy. But with unemployment in the double digits amid the shutdowns, Mr. Trump has lost his strongest argument — while only increasing his presence in the public eye.
“For the last five months, with the coronavirus and the social unrest, all they’re seeing is the persona side of him, and not as much focus on the one thing that is his main strength — which is performance on the economy,” Mr. Goeas said.
Polling shows that many of the policies Mr. Trump touted in his renomination speech, including ditching the Paris climate accord and signing an enormous tax cut in 2017, have long been relatively unpopular. So are some of the most central aspects of his political agenda: According to a Fox News poll this month, 53 percent of voters disagreed with Mr. Trump’s approach to immigration, while 41 percent agreed. And when it comes to negotiating with China — a particular point of pride for the president — 57 percent of Americans said they disapproved of how he was handling that, while just 40 percent approved, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Yet only one-third of the country said his policies were “too conservative” over all, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll this month. That includes just 34 percent of independents — a key voting bloc in his 2016 victory that has largely turned against him since then.
By comparison, in October 2004, on the eve of that year’s election, multiple surveys found that a greater share of Americans — four in 10 — saw then-President George W. Bush as too conservative. He won re-election anyway, beating John Kerry by more than than 2 percentage points.
For Mr. Trump, 43 percent of respondents to this month’s ABC/Post poll said he was about right ideologically, and another 11 percent didn’t give an opinion.
Indeed, for many voters, his policies simply aren’t the main point. Even among his own supporters, a Pew Research Center poll this month found that when asked to give their main complaint about their candidate, 25 percent mentioned his temperament or his lack of filter. Another 14 percent said they were bugged by his Twitter persona.
Among political independents who supported Mr. Trump, close to three in 10 said his temperament was their biggest complaint.
When asked to choose their preferred candidate on a range of traits, voters tend to lean toward Mr. Biden. But in a separate ABC/Post poll from July, Mr. Biden’s advantage was never greater than on matters of personality and temperament. Voters sided with Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump by a gaping 26-point margin.
“Some of the language that he uses, whether you want to call it braggadocious — it almost seems to be overstating things so much that it loses credibility,” Mr. Goeas said of the president. “That was not what you saw in that speech last night. So that’s what he got from the teleprompter. But the question becomes, how long before he can’t help himself? How long before the next tweet?”