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Trump finds himself playing campaign defense with core elements of his base

Heading into the crucial summer stretch of his re-election campaign, the president's support is declining among key groups that helped deliver his 2016 victory.
President Trump Returns To The White House On Memorial Day
With just over five months to Election Day, polls suggest an erosion of support among segments of voters Republican strategists had expected would be rock solid behind the president at this point.Sarah Silbiger / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Heading into the crucial summer stretch of his re-election campaign, President Donald Trump is grappling with declining support among key groups that helped deliver his 2016 victory, putting rising pressure on his campaign and the White House to shore up his base.

With just over five months to Election Day, a string of polls this month shows an erosion of support among voters whom Republican strategists had expected would be rock solid behind the president at this point, including seniors, non-college-educated white voters and evangelicals.

Trump has consistently trailed former Vice President Joe Biden in national polling this year, but his campaign advisers had long downplayed those numbers, pointing to the consistency of his message and arguing that his base was sticking with him. They spent time traveling to states Trump lost and targeting groups he was weakest with, such as black voters, to try to erode support for Biden, the apparent Democratic nominee.

And while it's a long way until November, the sliding enthusiasm among the president's base has been noted by Trump's aides, with focus increasingly turning to efforts to reach those groups directly, such as last week's White House event targeting seniors and recent presidential swings to Rust Belt states where white working-class support is critical to his fall chances.

"The significance of these results are not that the numbers have fallen and he may lose them in November, but the fact that he will spend valuable time and effort in rebuilding his support with these people," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "It will drive him that much harder in working on his base and rejuvenating his support with rallies."

Key to Trump's 2016 victory were white male voters, particularly those without college degrees, among whom Trump outperformed past Republican presidential candidates. The president has spent much of the past three years targeting the group with his policies and his messaging, touting trade deals with China and Mexico, strict immigration measures and progress on a southern border wall.

Still, Trump's support from those voters has dropped significantly since 2016, when he got 71 percent of the white non-college male vote. Now, 64 percent of white men without college degrees said they plan to vote for Trump, according to a survey released last week by Quinnipiac University. A Fox News poll last week found even less support, with Trump drawing support from 58 percent of the group.

There has been a similar trend among white voters with college educations. Trump's support from white men with college degrees has dropped from 53 percent to 44 percent. Among white college-educated women, it fell from 44 percent to 29 percent in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey in April.

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Trump's support has also declined among a group that had been one of the firmest pillars of the Republican Party — evangelical voters. While he still has a commanding lead among that group, it, too, has narrowed. In a national poll by Fox News this month, 70 percent of evangelical voters said they planned to vote for Trump. That compares to 81 percent in 2016, according to exit polling.

From March to April, Trump's approval among white evangelicals fell by 11 points, the Public Religion Research Institute found. Trump also dropped by 12 points among white Catholics and 18 points among mainline Protestants, the survey found.

Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh dismissed the poll numbers, saying the campaign's internal data show the president "in solid shape in all of our key states." The campaign told surrogates this month that its internal polling in 17 states it is targeting showed Trump closing the gap against Biden, from a 9-point deficit three weeks ago to tied at 48 percent, according to an email obtained by NBC News.

"Americans know his record on building a great economy and know he is the one to lead us to that position again," Murtaugh said. "Evangelicals know that he is the best pro-life president in history."

But public polling has the trends hurting Trump in the must-win battleground states, where his support has dropped to 43 percent from 50 percent in 2016, according to April NBC/WSJ surveys.

Trump's weakening appeal with seniors following his response to the coronavirus is hurting him particularly hard in Florida, where 21 percent of voters are 65 and older. In 2016, Trump won the senior vote in the state by 17 points over Hillary Clinton, but he leads Biden among that group by just 4 points, according to a Florida Atlantic University poll this month.

In a separate survey, Biden held a 10-point lead over Trump among seniors, according to an April poll of Floridians by Quinnipiac University.

The president's campaign advisers have also grown increasingly concerned about Arizona, once a solidly Republican state viewed as a must-win for 2020, where Trump is being hurt by his falling support among suburban voters and low approval among Hispanic voters, a White House official said. Trump won Arizona by 3 points, but in 2018, four Democrats won statewide office. Republican Sen. Martha McSally, a Trump ally, is trailing former astronaut Mark Kelly, the Democrat, in the state's Senate contest.

"More than ever, this is going to be a race won and lost in the margins," the official said.

Trump traveled to Arizona his month to tour a plant making protective masks in his first visit outside Washington, D.C., since campaign events were canceled in March amid the coronavirus. Since then, he's made stops in Pennsylvania and Michigan, and he traveled to Florida this week for a rocket launch.

In Washington, the White House has already been targeting its messaging toward trying to win back some of those groups. Last week, Trump said he wanted all churches opened immediately and threatened to "override" governors who kept restrictions in place. On Tuesday, the White House held an event titled Protecting Seniors with Diabetes, where the president announced a plan to lower the price of insulin and used the moment to attack Biden.

"I hope the seniors are going to remember it," Trump said at the Rose Garden event.