As Donald Trump accepted the Republican party’s nomination for president on Thursday evening in a speech on the White House South Lawn, large crowds of anti-racism protesters gathered a block away.
Their chants echoed through the night as the president warned voters his opponent Joe Biden would be soft on crime and that the Democratic party stood with “anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters and flag-burners”.
With just over two months to go until election day, the president is hoping that his uncompromising law-and-order message will play well with voters against the backdrop of violent unrest in some US cities.
The Republican convention unfolded this week against the backdrop of protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where demonstrations erupted following the police shooting of a 29-year-old black man on Sunday. On Thursday, a white 17-year-old — who allegedly attended a Trump rally this earlier year — was charged in relation to the fatal shooting of two people at the protests.
Polling shows that many of those who voted for Mr Trump four years ago have become disillusioned with the president’s handling of the pandemic and the ensuing economic meltdown. But his campaign is hoping it can convince them to think again by painting a dystopian picture of a Democratic administration where towns and cities will succumb to “mob rule”.
Luke Thompson, a Republican consultant, said it was unclear whether the tough-on-crime message would cut through in the middle of a pandemic, but that “polling is suggesting there is some openness to this among a lot of voters, especially people in middle age”.
The president’s message could be aided by videos of demonstrators behaving aggressively that have circulated widely on social media this week. In one clip, a crowd of largely white Black Lives Matters protesters can be seen shouting in the face of a woman eating dinner outside a restaurant in Washington because she refused to comply with their demands that she raise her fist in solidarity with their cause.
Robin Moore, a 56-year-old Republican from a commuter town near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said there was “some truth that suburban women have turned against the president” but that scenes of unrest were prompting many of her neighbours to reconsider.
She said protests earlier this month in Wauwatosa, a nearby city, had been a “huge wake-up call for suburban moms”, adding: “I think fear is a big motivator.”
Yet many pollsters are unconvinced the “law and order” message will be enough to dig Mr Trump out of his polling deficit, arguing the president will only find a path to victory if the economy starts to recover or if Mr Biden falters in the forthcoming television debates.
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Mr Biden leads Mr Trump nationally by 8.3 points, according to a Financial Times average of recent polls. He is also ahead in several key swing states, including Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan, although there are some signs his lead may be narrowing.
In an echo of Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 strategy, Mr Trump started calling for law and order earlier this summer after demonstrations broke out across the US in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer.
However, some Republican analysts say he has undermined his own message by instructing law enforcement to use tear gas and brute force to disperse protesters in Washington and by sending federal troops to the streets of Portland.
“Some of his actions undercut his positioning as a source of order against forces of chaos,” said Mr Thompson.
Frank Luntz, a veteran Republican pollster, agreed, saying Mr Trump’s law-and-order refrain was not the right message to send to voters concerned about wider public safety.
“When you say law and order, the public sees cops hitting protesters over the head with clubs,” Mr Luntz said. “The public supports the protests, they support Black Lives Matter, and they support the police. You can keep all three thoughts in your mind at the same time.”
He added: “Trump is talking about law and order when what the public really wants is public safety. They don’t want to dominate the streets, they want safe streets, safe neighbourhoods.”
Opinion polls show a majority of Americans support peaceful protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. However, their approval has dipped since Floyd’s killing, according Civiqs, an online survey company. Pollsters say this may be linked to the incidents of looting and violence that have accompanied some protests and calls from leftwing activists to “defund the police”.
Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, which tracks public opinion in Wisconsin, a swing state, said surveys conducted earlier this month showed that while support had slipped for protesters it had not resulted in a corresponding increase in the president’s approval ratings.
“There is clear evidence here that what was initially a positive response to the protests . . . dissipated as we got into August,” he said. “But those attitudes . . . [were] not connected, apparently, to views of Trump and his handling of the whole affair.”
Mr Biden has distanced himself from calls to defund the police, but has faced criticism for not being more vociferous in his condemnation of violence and looting, underscoring the tightrope his campaign must walk to appeal to progressives outraged by systemic racism without turning off more centrist voters.
On Thursday, Mr Biden accused the president of “pouring gasoline on the fire” after Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump adviser, told Fox News: “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who's best on public safety and law and order.”
Republicans like Ms Moore in Wisconsin believe the latest unrest may tip the scales in favour of Mr Trump. The president won Wisconsin’s 10 electoral college votes by less than one percentage point in 2016, and the FT average of polls shows Mr Biden currently leading in the state by a five-point margin.
Erin Decker, a 43-year-old mother and Republican party leader in Kenosha county, said her neighbours believed the president was “watching out for them”.
Ms Decker said “no one believes” that Mr Blake should have been shot, but that she and her neighbours “saw the carnage and destruction in [Kenosha] and how outnumbered law enforcement was”.
She added: “Those moms want to protect their families and homes first”.
Additional reporting by Christine Zhang in New York
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