Less than five months before voters decide his fate, President Donald Trump is confronting a vastly different political reality than he once envisioned.
For starters, if the election were held today, he’d likely lose.
The president, West Wing advisers and campaign aides have grown increasingly concerned about his re-election chances as they have watched Mr Trump’s standing take a pummelling – first over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and now during nationwide protests against racial injustice.
His Republican allies worry the president has achieved something his November foe has been unable to do: ignite enthusiasm in a Democratic Party base that has been lukewarm to former vice president Joe Biden.
Mr Trump was facing tougher political prospects even before the death last month of George Floyd, the black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee onto his neck.
Covid-19’s mounting human and economic tolls – and the president’s defiant response – cost him support among constituencies his campaign believes are key to victory.
His signature rallies had been frozen for months and his cash advantage over Mr Biden, while vast, was not growing as quickly as hoped since the pandemic put a halt to high-dollar fundraisers.
Internal campaign surveys and public polling showed a steady erosion in support for Mr Trump among seniors and in battleground states once believed to be leaning decisively in the president’s direction, according to six current and former campaign officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The campaign recently launched a television ad blitz in Ohio, a state the president carried by eight percentage points four years ago. It also sees trouble in Arizona and warning signs in the once deeply Republican Georgia.
Aides have warned Mr Trump the renewed national interest in racial injustice and the president’s major “law and order” push have animated parts of the Democratic base — black and younger voters — whose lagging enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton in 2016 cleared the way for Mr Trump’s narrow victory.
Though outwardly confident, Mr Trump has complained to advisers about the perception he is losing to Mr Biden, and has pressed aides for strategies to improve his standing.
Late last month, the Trump campaign moved two veteran political aides into senior leadership roles, and on Friday, the campaign brought in former communications chief Jason Miller as a senior adviser.
The White House seized on better-than-expected employment data on Friday, selling it as a sign of a post-pandemic economic comeback the president’s team considers crucial to victory in November.
The campaign’s plan had been to spend the spring of 2020 trying to negatively define Mr Biden, a strategy that went out the window when Covid-19 reached American shores.
Mr Trump’s aides have been frustrated that the pandemic has allowed Mr Biden to largely stay out of public sight, believing he often damages himself when speaking in public.
Now discussions are under way for a renewed effort to attack Mr Biden on several fronts, according to the officials.
These include: his ties to China, the country the White House blames for the spread of the pandemic; Hunter Biden, the vice president’s son, whom aides believe can be painted as a symbol of corruption; and Mr Biden’s support for a 1994 crime bill, which Mr Trump says helped create conditions that have led to the unrest in American cities.
“A lot of Americans know of Joe Biden, but not too many know Joe Biden. And our job is to educate voters about the real Joe Biden,” said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtagh.
Driving up Mr Biden’s negative ratings is an imperative for a Trump team who see little scope for increasing the president’s approval ratings, which have been stubbornly under water since Mr Trump took office.
In 2016, Mrs Clinton’s disapproval ratings were nearly as high as Mr Trump’s, and voters who disliked both candidates largely broke for the latter. But those same type of voters, at least for now, favour Mr Biden this time, and the former vice president is viewed more favourably by the general public.
“The Trump campaign keeps calling the same play, talking a big game and then getting smoked on the field,” said Biden campaign spokesman TJ Ducklo.
“The Trump Campaign and their Super PAC have spent nearly $20m attacking Biden since April 1, and they have watched Trump steadily decline in the polls.”
Mr Trump has been hankering for a return to his old mainstay of large-scale rallies this summer. But aides have cautioned that it could be risky to fill an arena — creating the potential for negative news stories if the virus were found to have spread at a campaign event.