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Trump doubles down on crime message as polls suggest it's a risky gamble

His campaign's reliance on public safety as a winning issue is rising even as surveys suggest it's not necessarily an area where he holds a decisive advantage.
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WASHINGTON — The crime-heavy focus during the Republican National Convention appears to have fallen flat with voters, a new wave of surveys has suggested, even as President Donald Trump appears increasingly reliant on the issue as a core element of his re-election strategy.

Following a carefully choreographed convention focused on playing up fears of violent crime, lauding law enforcement and portraying Democratic nominee Joe Biden as a tool of violent anarchists, Trump stayed mostly on his law-and-order message last week, aside from a few side controversies.

His campaign released a new set of ads in Wisconsin and Minnesota, swing states affected most by looting and vandalism during protests over racial injustice. Spots featuring burning buildings, smashed windows and images of a confused-looking Biden were mixed with those of more left-leaning members of his party.

In a call with reporters last week on the state of the race, Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller said Biden's campaign had been taken over by a "radical left-wing mob," and he faulted Biden for lacking a "plan to stop the violence."

But even though worries about crime have ticked up in the past month, according to polls released last week, there have been no surveys pointing to public safety as a top issue for voters. The majority of Americans are still most worried about the coronavirus, the economy and the impacts of racism, with just 37 percent saying they are worried about the risk of crime in their communities, according to a CNN poll by SSRS.

More problematic for Trump, the latest surveys suggest that even if crime were to become a driving issue, the president does not appear to have a striking advantage over Biden, despite having spent tens of millions of dollars in advertising to cement an edge on the issue.

Heading into the conventions, Trump had a narrow 4-point advantage over Biden on the question of which candidate would be best equipped to deal with crime, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

After the conventions, a poll by Morning Consult/Politico gave an even larger edge to Biden, with 47 percent of voters saying they trust him more to handle public safety, compared to 39 percent who said the same of Trump. In a post-convention survey by Quinnipiac University, 50 percent of likely voters said Trump made them feel less safe, compared to 40 percent who said a Biden presidency would make them feel that way.

A Fox News poll taken in Wisconsin following the destruction there showed Biden up by 8 points, only 1 point less than when Fox polled residents at the end of May. Among registered voters, 46 percent said they viewed Biden as better equipped to handle criminal justice and policing issues, compared to 42 percent who pointed to Trump.

A Republican strategist close to the campaign said voters should expect to hear more about the economy, which remains one of Trump's strongest areas among voters as the unemployment rate ticks down. But inside the Trump campaign, advisers still say the crime focus has been effective, positing that a shrinking Trump deficit as the campaign homestretch begins can be attributed in large part to the law-and-order messaging.

Trump's overall deficit has shrunk to 7 points coming out of the conventions, compared to a 10-point gap at the start of July, when the crime push first kicked into high gear, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average.

Over the past two months, there has been a 5-point shift in Trump's favor in Michigan, a 4-point shift in his direction in Pennsylvania, a 3-point shift in Wisconsin and a 2-point shift in Florida, according to the RealClear Politics battleground polling tracker. That puts Biden up by 3 points in Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania and up by 4 in Wisconsin — leads that are within many polls' margins of error.

"I think we have a horse race now," said a Republican strategist close to the campaign. "You've got four debates, and there will be issues happening before Election Day that none of us even know about that will become part of this equation."

Still, the latest surveys show that Biden leads both nationally and in swing states.

While Trump's allies tried to sell an optimistic view of the data, the president himself has outright dismissed it. "Get a new pollster. I believe we are leading BIG!" he tweeted Thursday about the Fox poll. Trump moderated his spin somewhat at a rally in Pennsylvania later that evening. "I think we are way ahead of where we were four years ago, and there is far more enthusiasm," he told the crowd.

And there is one demographic that does cite crime as a top issue: the president's current base. Among Trump voters, crime was just as big a worry as the economy and the coronavirus in the CNN poll. In Florida, 83 percent of voters who said law and order were their most important issue said they planned to vote for Trump, according to a Quinnipiac poll in which Biden has a 3-point advantage in Florida.

Trump's campaign continues to focus on driving out his base, sending the president to campaign events and placing ads in blue-collar and rural areas where he did best in 2016 rather than focusing on winning voters in more population-dense areas like the suburbs around large cities. But with less than two months to go until Election Day, Trump needs to be reaching beyond his core supporters, strategists say.

"Nobody ever gets elected president on the basis of their base only," Karl Rove said Wednesday on Fox News. "So the president has to continue to do what he did during the convention, which is make an appeal to a broader group of people."

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Ken Farnaso, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, said in response to the post-convention poll numbers: "Americans know full well that President Trump is the law-and-order President and that Joe Biden's actions and policies prove that he is sympathetic to his liberal mob of supporters rioting in our streets. Why else would Biden be spending $45 million in just one week to try and counter those facts?"

Biden has begun trying to carve his own lane on the issue, traveling to Kenosha, Wisconsin, two days after Trump and pushing back this week against Trump's narrative that if Biden were president, the lawlessness would be even worse. Whereas Trump's visit focused on highlighting the looting and violence during protests after the shooting of Jacob Blake by police, Biden spent his visit meeting with Blake's family and talking about unity and race relations.

The Biden campaign doesn't think Trump's attempt to shift the focus from the coronavirus to crime has changed the shape of the race, chief strategist Mike Donilon said. The campaign said it will be airing ads on health care, education, economy and foreign policy rather than responding to issues Trump is trying to raise.

"The president came in and he tried to make this into a law-and-order campaign, and there was a lot of speculation it would work to his benefit. There's a long history of these kinds of campaigns in the country," Donilon said on a call with reporters Friday. "I think there was a lot of belief, a lot of conventional wisdom, that it would work to his advantage. OK. And it didn't."