Top GOP senator fears Trump is 'soft' with independents, urges shift in strategy

The remarks by Sen. John Thune come as sliding presidential poll numbers spark concern among Republican leaders.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., during a hearing in Washington
"Right now, obviously, Trump has a problem with the middle of the electorate, with independents, and they're the people who are undecided in national elections," Senate Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota told reporters Wednesday.Anna Moneymaker / Pool via Getty Images

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By Sahil Kapur, Frank Thorp V and Julie Tsirkin

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Whip John Thune sounded the alarm Wednesday that President Donald Trump's support among independent voters was "soft," urging a change in strategy in light of a New York Times survey that showed the president trailing Democrat Joe Biden by double digits.

The Times/Siena national poll found Biden winning 50 percent of registered voters, with Trump winning 36 percent. Among independents, Biden led by a substantial 18 points.

"Right now, obviously, Trump has a problem with the middle of the electorate, with independents, and they're the people who are undecided in national elections," Thune, R-S.D., told reporters in the Capitol. "I think he can win those back, but it'll probably require not only a message that deals with substance and policy but, I think, a message that conveys, perhaps, a different tone."

Trump won independent voters by 6 points in 2016, according to exit polls compiled by NBC News.

Asked whether the latest numbers were a wake-up call for the Trump campaign, Thune said, "It's a message that there needs to be a — certainly a change in probably strategy as far as the White House's messaging is concerned."

Thune said Trump could boost Republican Senate candidates if he could "perform better in terms of his own standing with the voters." He said the president is "in a bit of a low point right now, but as we all know in politics, in a short amount of time things can change."

The remarks are a rare public admission from a senior Republican that Trump is struggling politically in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which has slammed the brakes on the economy, as well as the nationwide backlash to George Floyd's death in police custody, which has elevated the issue of race relations.

Trump's performance this fall will affect not only the presidential race but also his party's prospects of keeping control of the Senate and its dwindling hopes of recapturing the House majority.

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh denied last week that the president was an underdog.

"President Trump has always been in a strong position," he said on Fox News, "and remains so today."

In recent weeks, Biden has led Trump by 12 points in a Fox News poll, by 8 points in a Quinnipiac University poll and by 14 points in a CNN poll. He has also led in most recent surveys of key battleground states, such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona. A Wisconsin poll released Wednesday by Marquette University Law School found Biden leading Trump by 8 points, having more than doubled his advantage since May in the pivotal state.

The Times poll found Trump's job approval rating nationally at 41 percent.

While Americans approved of his handling of the economy by a net 5 points, he got poor scores on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic (with disapproval outweighing approval by 20 points), race relations (a net negative 28 points) and the Floyd protests (a net negative 33 points).

Thune said Wednesday that with Biden staying mostly out of sight, "it's Trump versus Trump." He noted that the presidential debates have yet to happen, but he said that "at the moment, at least, we're in a period where his numbers, particularly among independent voters, are soft."

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Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said that Trump "obviously has been presented with a very really challenging situation" and that his handling of it will affect whether voters want to re-elect him.

He accused Democrats of blocking Republican legislative efforts like police reform to "make sure that chaos ensues" and to protect Biden.

"So they take advantage of it and make sure Joe Biden never gets out of his basement," Cramer said. "And it might work."