NEWS
14/06/2020 06:00 BST | Updated 14/06/2020 10:53 BST

Will Anti-Racism Protests Force Donald Trump From Office?

The president's poll numbers are sinking amid nationwide demonstrations and mounting coronavirus deaths. But the 2016 election proved pollsters aren’t always right.

The widespread anti-racism protests across the United States have caused a seismic shift in US public opinion — one that could reverberate all the way to the White House in November.

Since the killing of George Floyd by a police officer on May 25, support for the Black Lives Matter movement has skyrocketed. Americans support the protests by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, according to a recent HuffPost/YouGov poll, with most viewing Floyd’s death as part of a pattern in police treatment of black men.

The findings reflect a dramatic shift in attitudes — particularly among white Americans — toward the pervasiveness of racial discrimination in policing and in society as a whole.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s approval ratings have tumbled amid the continuing social unrest and the rising death toll and economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

A Gallup poll this week showed Trump’s overall approval rating falling to 39%, a double-digit drop from two weeks ago when he stood at 49%.

Perhaps most significantly, Trump’s support has fallen among two religious groups that make up a core part of his base: white Catholics and white evangelicals.

These groups were more supportive of Trump in the 2016 election than any other religious group, and he needs them to show up for him in November if he hopes to win reelection.

A Worried White House

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Police take security measures near White House during a protest over the death of George Floyd.

The White House appears to be shaken. In April, after polls showed presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden with a small edge over Trump in the general election, the president quickly dismissed the findings.

“I don’t believe the polls,” Trump told Reuters. “I believe the people of this country are smart. And I don’t think that they will put a man in who’s incompetent.”

As Trump’s numbers have fallen, however, that nonchalance has evaporated. This week, after a CNN survey showed Trump trailing Biden by a whopping 14 points, Trump’s reelection campaign demanded that CNN retract and apologise for the poll, arguing that it was “designed to mislead American voters.” (CNN said it stood by the poll.)

Behind the scenes, as well, Trump has been pouring millions of dollars into advertisements in states such as Ohio, Iowa and Arizona that he won in 2016 — a sign that the election this year may be more competitive than Trump and his supporters initially anticipated.

Ohio, once a key battleground state, has been trending Republican for years, but recent polls show Biden leading there. And if Biden were to win in states like Arizona or Georgia, Trump’s path to re-election would be exceedingly difficult. (Though as Trump’s surprise 2016 victory proved, polls can only predict so much.) 

Tom Brenner / Reuters
Trump walks between lines of riot police in Lafayette Park across from the White House while walking to St John's Church for a photo opportunity during ongoing protests over racial inequality.

The Election Is Still Months Away, However

If Trump is increasingly worried about his reelection prospects, however, his allies aren’t showing it ― at least not publicly.

Top Republican senators say it is far too early to be alarmed, given that the election is still months away and the economy has only begun to recover amid the coronavirus pandemic (though it will likely be years before the economy truly rebounds, and a second wave of infections could quickly undo any economic gains).

“It’s a long time till November. November’s a lot further in the future than impeachment was in the past, and impeachment seems like it was forever ago,” Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri told HuffPost this week.

Mitt Romney, a Republican Senator from Utah and a frequent critic of the president, also said that he expected Trump to win.

“I’ve long predicted the president will be re-elected,” Romney told HuffPost. “I continue to believe that’s going to be the case.”

Moreover, religious conservatives may disapprove of Trump at the moment, but that doesn’t mean they won’t vote for him.

“Trump holds them captive,” John Fea, a historian of American evangelicalism at Messiah College, told HuffPost.

“They must support Trump, because they need him to win in November so that their more important social issues such as abortion and religious liberty can be advanced in an attempt to ‘make America great again’ — code for ‘make America a Christian nation again.’”

For Trump, the Current Crisis Is an Opportunity

Erik McGregor via Getty Images
A portrait of George Floyd held by protesters in New York.

Even as his poll numbers decline, Trump has seized on the current crisis as an opportunity to depict himself as a “law and order” president, turning the election campaign into a culture war in which Republicans could hold the upper ground.

Whereas Biden has met with the family of George Floyd and says he “hears and shares the deep grief and frustration of those calling out for change,” Trump has taken a hard-line stance against rising calls to “defund the police.”

In a meeting with law enforcement officials at the White House this week, Trump praised America’s police officers as “great, great people” and took an uncompromising position against calls to reform or abolish police departments.

“There won’t be defunding,” Trump said. “There won’t be dismantling of our police. There’s not going to be any disbanding of our police.”

While the idea of defunding the police has rapidly become part of mainstream political debate, polls indicate that such changes remain widely unpopular among Americans.

A HuffPost/YouGov poll released Friday showed that most Americans support reforms like banning chokeholds, clarifying the circumstances under which police officers may use force and making it easier for officers to be prosecuted. Just 7% of Americans say the country’s police system is basically sound and requires essentially no changes.

When it comes to defunding the police, however, just 27% of Americans support the idea.

According to an earlier HuffPost/YouGov poll this week, even when voters were asked whether they favour budgeting less money for police and more for social workers and mental health professionals, the results did not reflect broad support for reallocating the funds: Only 44% support those changes, while 46% oppose them.

Biden clarified this week that he does not support defunding the police — potentially deflecting some of Trump’s criticism — but Trump’s supporters still believe they can tie the Democratic nominee to the movement.

On Thursday, Trump’s campaign released an ad claiming that Biden “fails to stand up to the radical leftists fighting to defund or even abolish the police.”

“The Democrats are giving a wink and a nod to the ‘defund the police’ movement all on their own ― even if Biden was hedging all over himself,” a senior White House aide told HuffPost.

Another White House aide was clear that opposing calls to defund the police would be a centrepiece of Trump’s campaign, even if Democrats don’t come out more forcefully in favour of the idea. 

“There is no greater gift,” this aide said.

To Win, Biden Needs the Support of Black Voters 

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Joe Biden speaks via video link as family and guests attend the funeral service for George Floyd.

Biden’s supporters believe that his ability to tap into the energy of the current Black Lives Matter movement could prove critical to his success this fall. 

His popularity among older black voters, largely stemming from his time as Barack Obama’s vice president, helped him secure the Democratic nomination this year.

But Biden has struggled to inspire a younger generation of black voters, who have been critical of his support for tough-on-crime policies in the 1980s and ’90s, which they say contributed to the mass incarceration of black people. 

He has also faced accusations of taking black voters for granted. In May, Biden was forced to apologise after joking during an interview that “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”

“I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy,” Biden later said. “I shouldn’t have been so cavalier.”

Young people who did not vote for Biden during the primary “are the same ones who are protesting in the streets right now, who hold his political record as responsible for the pain they are feeling right now,” Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster who conducted a series of focus groups for Black Lives Matter earlier this year, to assess the question of why young black voters were not excited to vote, told Politico. “There is some atonement that needs to happen there.”

Calls have been growing for Biden to select a black woman as his vice-presidential running mate, in order to energise black voters and signal his commitment to addressing racial injustice.

The fear for Democrats is not that young black voters will support Trump. But if they are not enthusiastic about Biden, and are skeptical about the possibility of seeing real systemic change, they could decide simply to stay home on Election Day — making it easier for Trump to win reelection.

Other problems — such as the chaos many Americans experienced in Georgia this week, where thousands of voters waited for up to seven hours in lines that stretched blocks during the state’s primary election — could also suppress the black vote in November.

“This is a moment where people are disillusioned in institutions,” Branden Snyder, the executive director of a grassroots organisation in Detroit that works to mobilise black and brown voters, told Politico.

“I’m worried that a lot of our first-time voters, and a lot of them are young voters, are going ... to completely opt out of the system.”

With reporting from HuffPost US.