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Behind Trump's push to shift Americans' campaign-year fears from coronavirus to crime

After struggling with messaging for months, and with 100 days until Election Day, the campaign has rallied around an apocalyptic pitch: “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
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WASHINGTON — It was a week that brought President Donald Trump's summer campaign message into focus: With just over 100 days to go until Election Day, the president and his team are focusing their efforts on trying to shift the public’s anxieties from a virus that has killed more than 145,000 Americans to fears of violent crime and anarchy.

After struggling for months to land on a message that will resonate with voters, aides and advisers have rallied around a singular pitch — “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America” — with the White House holding events focused on crime while the Trump campaign spends millions of dollars on television ads aimed at stoking that sentiment with images of looters and burning buildings.

The effort was on full display this week. Over the course of two hours at a White House event on Wednesday, Trump went from highlighting stories of shooting victims and describing cities as overrun by criminals to reassuring the public that a coronavirus vaccine was getting close, claiming “it’s all going to work out” despite record numbers of new cases.

"For decades, politicians running many of our nation’s major cities have put the interests of criminals above the rights of law-abiding citizens,” he said. “These same politicians have now embraced the far-left movement to break up our police departments, causing violent crime in their cities to spiral, and I mean spiral seriously out of control.”

With support among older adults declining in public polls, the campaign released an ad this week of an older woman calling 911 as an intruder broke into her home, a news broadcast about defunding the police playing in the background. As a dark, shadowy figure descends on the woman, she gets a recording saying no one is available to take her call. Moments later, the phone falls to the floor.

Another ad the campaign released this month showed a phone ringing in what appeared to be an empty police station. "The radical left wing mob's agenda: take over our cities, defund the police, pressure more towns to follow. And Joe Biden stands with them," says the narrator over an image of Biden superimposed over a burning building. "Who will be there to answer the call when your children aren't safe?"

“They are selling fear,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “Trump is marketeering fear of anarchy if he loses. ‘America as you know it will be gone, if I’m not elected,’ that is his campaign message.”

White House events like the one Wednesday and another last week — a “roundtable with stakeholders positively impacted by law enforcement” — have been designed to portray Trump as a strong commander in chief addressing lawlessness, an administration official said. Despite widespread criticism over federal law enforcement agents tear-gassing protests in Portland, Oregon, Trump said on Wednesday he would be sending more officers to cities run by Democratic officials.

Trump tried on Thursday to target this message specifically at suburban women, a key demographic whose support for him has tumbled, tweeting a plea for "The Suburban Housewives of America" to read an article he'd linked to about Biden's housing policy. "Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!"

But an effort to convince voters that the top threat they face is crime — not a deadly pandemic — is a tough sell and could backfire, political analysts said. The scenes of chaos playing out in Trump’s own campaign ads took place during his time as president, and Democrats have used similar images to support their case against Trump. It also opens the door for Democrats to ask voters if they believe they are safe in Trump’s America, given the pandemic and social unrest.

“I think it is going to be difficult for Trump to overcome that,” said Patrick Maney, a professor at Boston College. “Convincing people that someone breaking into their house as they are watching TV and the police not being able to respond isn’t going to be as effective because of the pandemic.”

So far, the strategy hasn't appeared to have the intended effect. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week found Biden had a 9-point advantage over Trump on the question of which candidate voters trusted more on crime and safety. Trump had an even greater deficit to Biden on his handling of the coronavirus, with 34 percent of voters saying they trusted Trump over Biden to handle it compared to 54 percent who said they favored Biden.

Just 3 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll in June said crime was the biggest problem facing the country, compared to 20 percent who said it was the coronavirus.

The Trump campaign's fear-of-crime ad blitz is only a few weeks old, and advisers insist they still have time to define the former vice president. This week, the campaign tried to seize on comments by Biden that he would support redirecting some funding from police departments to other services in an attempt to link him to groups that want to see a complete defunding and abolishment of police departments, a position Biden has said he doesn't support.

"A lot of people feel like things are out of control on crime and violence in the cities and Trump can help lead toward more stability," Ed Martin, former head of the Missouri Republican Party who advises the Trump campaign on anti-abortion issues. "I think people want to see that, even if it isn’t very easy to do or conclusively done, I think they want to see that."

But given concerns about the coronavirus and the looming issue of whether schools will reopen, Martin said it is hard to tell if the messaging around crime in cities will have much of an influence.

Still, the president's team is able to look to a half-century track record for crime and safety pitches, with presidential historians highlighting similarities between Trump's approach and that of the campaigns of Richard Nixon and George Wallace. Fear in political campaigns — whether of terrorists, criminals or a foreign power — has very often proven an effective tool for candidates.

“We are very attentive to threat. We often think of ourselves as voting on our hopes and fears, and it’s a lot easier to get people to vote on their fears than on hope,” said Jacob Neiheisel, a political science professor at the University at Buffalo. “That is hard-wired in us.”