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Politics

Trump out to Build “Permission Structure” to Win back Voters

September 5, 2020

NEW YORK — Showcasing Black Americans at the Republican National Convention to allay white voters' fears that President Donald Trump is a racist. Sharing touching stories about the president's concern for the military. Painting Democrat Joe Biden as an unacceptable alternative who threatens the American way of life.

It's all part of the Trump campaign's effort to construct a "permission structure" — a clunky catchphrase for creating an emotional and psychological gateway to help disenchanted voters feel comfortable voting for the president again despite their reservations about him personally.

Both the GOP convention and the president's recent "law and order" mantra have been aimed squarely at former Trump supporters who've grown unhappy with his inflammatory rhetoric and handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The goal is to humanize Trump and demonize Biden so that these voters, particularly women and suburbanites, feel that they can vote for Trump again anyway.

"Their new theme is that it's OK to support Trump even if you don't care for him," said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who advised Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential bid four years ago. "People don't like him because they think he is racist, sexist or doesn't care about average people. But their message now is 'Don't look at what he said, look at what he does.'"

The phrase "permission structure" got a political cameo in 2013 when President Barack Obama advanced his theory that many congressional Republicans agreed with his proposals but withheld their support because of political considerations and the fear they would face challenges in GOP primaries.

"We're going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what's going to be best for the country," Obama said then. "But it's going to take some time."

Variations of the same phrase had been used in political circles and the marketing world long before then.

In advertising, it's sometimes known as "permission to believe," meaning that Madison Avenue needed to pitch a product — be it laundry detergent or high-end vodka — in a way that would help consumers justify spending the money on themselves.

Donny Deutsch, an advertising executive and former cable host, said he has observed, in his own surveys, that some voters keep their support of Trump secret because it benefits their bottom lines. And he believes the president's recent messaging on the unrest has been effective. 

"We can all left-brain it as much we want: It's his America, it's his violence, how can he run as an outsider when he's president?" said Deutsch, a vocal Trump critic. "But it's a very primal thing. I think it works."

Within months of Trump taking office, aides noticed he was beginning to lose support among women, particularly those in the suburbs, who were turned off by some of his callous behavior and bellicose tweets. The suburbs, and female voters, largely broke for Democrats during the 2018 midterm elections in which the GOP suffered massive losses in House races.

The loss of support only accelerated this spring after the pandemic arrived. Many suburban voters and some seniors were unhappy with Trump's perceived lack of empathy for those affected by COVID-19 and those marching for racial justice after the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans. 

Much of the four-day Republican convention was meant to repair the damage and soften Trump's rough edges. There were testimonials from female staffers vouching for Trump's caring side, as well as from minority staffers, elected officials and friends.

The campaign would like to improve Trump's standing with Black men, despite his reflexive support for law enforcement involved in the killing of Black men, as well as his at times racist rhetoric and the disproportionate loss of life to COVID-19 in communities of color.

But the campaign's message on race was largely aimed at a different audience.

"It was beamed at the suburbs, particularly college-educated suburban women: They don't want to vote for somebody viewed as a racist," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

A similar repair effort was launched this week after reports emerged that Trump had repeatedly disparaged American servicemembers who were killed or captured. The president denied the allegations and GOP allies rushed to share stories of the president's caring attitude toward the military.

House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy recounted how the president earlier this year cut short a rally in New Hampshire so he could meet families receiving fallen servicemen at Dover, Delaware.

"I watched the president walk out there, stand in the rain, accepting the bodies coming down with the family," McCarthy told The Associated Press in an interview Friday.

Creating a permission structure for a voter to come home to Trump can be, at times, just as much about making the other candidate appear unacceptable as getting past reservations about the president. 

Sabato said the campaign is "trying to make Trump an acceptable alternative again as they drive up fears of Biden."

Trump has made a ferocious push to tear down Biden by asserting he is in thrall to left-wing radical forces that the Republican nominee has blamed for violence in cities like Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The Biden campaign has notched some high-profile national security endorsements and believes it is currently winning 9% of Trump's 2016 voters. And Democrats have celebrated the resources the president has needed to expend to win back Republicans.

"As Joe Biden said when he accepted the Democratic nomination for president," said Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates, "he would strive to represent all Americans, regardless of whether they are members of his base or not — the polar opposite of Trump's toxic approach."

The Trump campaign says it has growing support from Black and Latino communities and points to the president's sky-high approval rating within the GOP.

"Joe Biden — with no support and a dwindling base — is attempting to appeal to Republican voters, but his efforts are futile as President Trump is experiencing strong, unified support from the Republican Party," said campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager.

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