When it comes to the president, most people are dug in. They want him gone, or they admire him more than Abraham Lincoln. Tucked into the divide, though, is some small group still open to hearing what he has to say. Republican pollsters say they’ve spotted these voters in their research. Neil Newhouse, who has polled for four different Republican presidential campaigns, told me about a survey his firm conducted last year showing that, of the voters who disapproved of Trump’s job performance, 36 percent said they liked some of his policies and some actions that he took. That’s the prize. They’re the voters Trump can target with an economic-nationalist position that may seem more relevant in the time of COVID-19, Newhouse and other Trump allies told me.
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“An issue like this—nationalism—could come into play. They may not like everything he’s doing, but they like the way he’s standing up to China,” Newhouse said. John McLaughlin, a Trump pollster who has also worked for dozens of Republican congressional and presidential candidates over the years, echoed that notion. “There are some that may not like his style, but support his policies, and in particular, his economic-nationalist argument,” he told me. “That’s the persuadable middle. That’s where the votes are.”
Even within this slice of the electorate, though, are some who see Trump’s behavior as so repellent that they can’t get past it. Donald Scoggins is one of them. A self-described moderate Republican from Northern Virginia, he backed Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries for a time and favored Trump’s economic agenda, especially his pledge to bring manufacturing jobs home from overseas. He admires some of what Trump has done in office, especially Trump’s passage of the First Step Act, a criminal-justice-system overhaul that reduced sentences for certain inmates. But it’s not enough to earn his vote. “You’re the best thing since sliced bread if you agree with him,” Scoggins, 74, a retired real-estate broker, told me. “The minute you don’t agree with him, he tends to denigrate you. That’s not an example we want for our youth.”
Nor is a nationalist message certain to sway voters who have lost their jobs or fear that an ill-timed sneeze from somebody standing a few feet away might land them in the hospital. “I don’t know what argument is going to move 10 percent of the voters to Donald Trump,” Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told me, pointing to the bloc of voters who may be undecided. “I don’t know what that economic argument is, unless you’re so mind-numbingly dumb that you believe the Chinese are the culprits behind the fact that you’ve lost 30 percent of your retirement.”
It’s also not clear that China’s culpability is a top-of-mind concern for many Americans. Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, told me that in a survey he conducted in battleground states, people ranked what they believed should be the federal government’s priorities in the face of the pandemic. At the top of the list: quashing the virus. At the bottom: holding China accountable for allowing it to spread.