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Trump's new strategy against Biden faces signs of trouble, polls show

The president’s convention portrayed him as empathetic to Americans' problems and declared Biden soft on violence. So far, neither message appears to be resonating.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump leaves after a roundtable on donating plasma at the American Red Cross national headquarters in Washington on July 30.Evan Vucci / AP file

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden maintains a healthy lead over President Donald Trump heading into the campaign home stretch, with new head-to-head polls suggesting a race whose dynamic remains seemingly unaltered by the party conventions.

Nationally, Biden leads by 8 points in a Grinnell College/Selzer poll, by 10 points in a Quinnipiac poll, by 7 points in a USA Today/Suffolk poll, by 8 points in a CNN poll, by 7 points in a Reuters/Ipsos poll, and by 11 points in an Economist/YouGov poll.

Biden continues to run ahead of Hillary Clinton in 2016. In September of that year, she maintained a narrow lead averaging 1 to 4 points but fell behind Trump in surveys by CNN, Fox News and the Los Angeles Times, while tying him in several others.

This time, the race is not as close.

According to the FiveThirtyEight polling average, Biden led Trump by 8 points on Aug. 16, the day before the conventions began. That dipped slightly to 7.4 percent as of Sept. 2 with the first wave of high-quality surveys after the convention.

If that held, it would match the scale of President Barack Obama's landslide victory in the 2008 election popular vote.

Trump also faces challenges in battleground states.

Fox News surveys found Biden leading Trump by 8 points in Wisconsin, by 9 points in Arizona and by 4 points in North Carolina. One bright spot for Trump was that he narrowed his deficit with Biden to 4 points in a Pennsylvania poll by Monmouth University, which tightened to 1 point in a low-turnout model.

Still, a Biden victory is far from assured. There will be three presidential debates beginning at the end of this month that give voters a fresh look at the candidates. An "October surprise" could yet upend the dynamics. Uncertainty surrounding states' ability to handle a surge of mail-in ballots and Democratic accusations of Postal Service sabotage by the administration loom over the election.

And Trump's edge in the Electoral College means that he could win the election even if he handily loses the popular vote, like in 2016.

For now, though, Biden retains an edge heading into Labor Day weekend.

Is Trump's message sticking?

One major theme of the Republican convention was to pitch Trump as a caring man in private, despite his brash and combative public persona, with family members and close advisers telling stories of his sensitivity and concern behind the scenes.

But it didn't close the gap.

Biden led Trump by 11 points in the new CNN poll when respondents were asked to pick the candidate who "cares about people like you" — a margin unchanged from CNN's poll just before the conventions.

The YouGov poll found 39 percent of Americans saying Trump cares "a lot" or "some" about people like them — nearly unchanged from the 40 percent who said that in the same poll before either convention.

Biden led Trump by 17 points in a CNN poll on the question of who is more "honest and trustworthy." By contrast, a CNN poll four years ago showed Trump leading Clinton by 15 points on that question.

Trump benefited in 2016 from the baggage that Clinton carried as a polarizing public figure for three decades, which was fueled by an FBI investigation involving a private email server she used as secretary of state. Biden has been in public life for even longer but without attracting the same antagonism.

Trump has struggled to find a scandal that similarly damages perceptions of Biden's character.

And it is not clear that Trump's new message — that crime and violence are out of control and Biden wouldn't be strong enough to quell it — is sticking.

CNN's poll found Biden leading Trump by 6 points when asked whom voters trust to "keep Americans safe from harm."

The Ipsos poll found that just 8 percent of registered voters cite crime as the most important problem facing the United States today, while most others cited the economy, a lack of jobs or health care.

In Wisconsin — which is reeling from the Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake that has sparked unrest and violence — the Fox News poll found voters preferring Biden over Trump by 5 points on the issue of handling policing and criminal justice.

Asked Wednesday about the new polls, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said Biden’s defensive actions show he fears the attacks will resonate, citing his speech in Pittsburgh followed by a $45 million ad campaign denouncing violence.

“You don't need polls to understand that Americans can see on the evening news, and all day on cable television, cities on fire,” Murtaugh said, arguing that Biden “has been defined as a tool of the radical left.”

Speaking about the new school year in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday, Biden kept his focus on Trump’s handling of the pandemic — mockingly saying he's relying on “angel dust,” rather than smart policies, to make the virus disappear — and repeated his denunciation of violence and looting.

Trump’s attacks, the Democratic nominee said, showed he’d “like to be running against somebody else” — but “he's running against me, Joe Biden.”