Donald Trump knows he’s losing.
The president has privately come to that grim realization in recent days, multiple people close to him told POLITICO, amid a mountain of bad polling and warnings from some of his staunchest allies that he’s on course to be a one-term president.
Trump has endured what aides describe as the worst stretch of his presidency, marred by widespread criticism over his response to the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide racial unrest.
His rally in Oklahoma last weekend, his first since March, turned out to be an embarrassment when he failed to fill the arena.
What should have been an easy interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Thursday horrified advisers when Trump offered a rambling, non-responsive answer to a simple question about his goals for a second term.
“Well, one of the things that will be really great,” Trump replied. “You know, the word experience is still good. I always say talent is more important than experience. I’ve always said that, but the word experience is a very important word. It’s a very important meeting. I never did this before. I never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington, I think, 17 times. All of a sudden, I’m president of the United States. You know the story. I’m riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with our First Lady and I say, ‘This is great.’ But I didn’t know very many people in Washington, it wasn’t my thing. I was from Manhattan from New York. Now I know everybody, and I have great people in the administration. You make some mistakes. An idiot like Bolton, all he wanted to do is drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to drop bums on everybody. You don’t have to kill people.”
In the same appearance, the normally self-assured president offered a tacit acknowledgment that he might lose when he said that Joe Biden is “gonna be your president because some people don’t love me, maybe.”
In the hours after the interview aired, questions swirled within his inner circle about whether his heart was truly in it when it comes to seeking reelection.
Voters in all six top battleground states favor Joe Biden over Trump by comfortable margins.
The survey found that Biden is ahead of Trump by double digits in the core battlegrounds of Pennsylvania (where Biden has a 10-point lead), Michigan and Wisconsin (where Biden leads in each by 11 percentage points).
Trump won those three states narrowly in 2016, ensuring his victory over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Further, the former vice president leads Trump by 6 percentage points in Florida, 7 percentage points in Arizona and 9 percentage points in North Carolina.
In addition, polls show Biden leading in GOP must-win Ohio, and tied with Trump in Texas.
That all adds up to a huge electoral vote advantage for Biden.
Trump has time to rebound, and the political environment could improve for him.
But interviews with more than a half-dozen people close to the president depicted a reelection effort badly in need of direction — and an unfocused candidate who repeatedly undermines himself.
“Under the current trajectory, President Trump is on the precipice of one the of the worst electoral defeats in modern presidential elections and the worst historically for an incumbent president,” said former Trump political adviser Sam Nunberg, who remains a supporter.
If Trump’s numbers against erode to 35 percentage points over the next two weeks, Nunberg added, “He’s going to be facing realistically a 400-plus electoral vote loss and the president would need to strongly reconsider whether he wants to continue to run as the Republican presidential nominee.”
Behind the scenes, Trump and his team are taking steps to correct course. In the week since his Tulsa rally, the president has grudgingly conceded that he’s behind, according to three people who are familiar with his thinking.
Trump, who vented for days about the event, is starting to take a more hands-on role in the campaign and has expressed openness to adding more people to the team.
He has also held meetings recently focusing on his efforts in individual battleground states.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who effectively oversees the campaign from the White House, is expected to play an even more active role.
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale was blamed internally for the Tulsa rally failure.
Some people complained about him trumpeting that 1 million people had requested tickets, a boast that fell flat when thousands of seats sat empty during Trump’s speech.
Parscale has been a target of some Trump allies who argue the campaign is lacking a coherent strategy and direction.
But people close to the president insist that Parscale’s job is safe for now.
Trump, who visited the campaign’s Arlington, Virginia headquarters a few months ago, has told people he came away impressed with the sophistication of the organization.
Parscale, whose background is as a digital strategist, has received some reinforcements in recent weeks.
Longtime Trump adviser Bill Stepien was given added responsibilities in the campaign, including working with political director Chris Carr and the Republican National Committee on voter turnout.
And Jason Miller, a veteran of the 2016 campaign, was brought back to serve as a chief political strategist, a position that had been unfilled.
But those internal moves have done little to calm Republican jitters about the president’s personal performance.
Fox News host and Trump favorite Tucker Carlson issued a blunt warning on his show this week that the president “could well lose this election.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, another close Trump ally, told reporters that the president needs to make the race “more about policy and less about your personality.”
Trump’s team insists the president’s numbers are bound to improve as he steps up his public events and intensifies his attacks on Biden.
People involved in the campaign say they have settled on two main avenues to go after the former vice president: That he’s beholden to liberals who want to do away with law and order, and that he’s a consummate Washington insider.
The campaign has begun a massive TV ad campaign going after the 77-year-old former vice president, including over his mental capacity and his nearly five-decade political career.
Hoping to make inroads with African-American voters, Trump’s campaign is running ads slamming Biden over his central role in the 1994 crime bill.
The commercials are airing in an array of states including Georgia, a traditionally red state where Trump suddenly finds himself in a fight.
The cash-flush campaign is expected to remain on the TV airwaves in a host of key states through the election.
Trump advisers acknowledge that tearing down Biden will require a level of discipline he isn’t demonstrating.
They have pleaded with Trump — who has used his Twitter account to vilify critics from MSNBC host Joe Scarborough to former National Security Adviser John Bolton — to stop focusing on slights that mean little to voters.
Biden’s low-profile during the pandemic has made it that much harder for Trump to land a punch, his advisers said.
But Republicans say he and his campaign need to figure out something soon.
“The key factor has been that Biden has been able to stay out of the race,” said David McIntosh, the president of the pro-Trump Club for Growth. “Republicans have to start defining Biden and put resources and effort and consistent messaging behind it.”
The Trump campaign was hoping to expand the map this year to pick up other states Clinton took narrowly in 2016, such as Minnesota and New Hampshire.
But state polls this season indicate that the president is going to have to fight hard to hang onto a growing list of battlegrounds, including states like Ohio, Iowa and Texas.
Former President Barack Obama, appearing at a virtual fundraiser with his former second in command Tuesday evening, warned supporters of complacency.
“Whatever we’ve done to get Joe Biden elected – we need to do more,” Obama said.