Valerie Barbin was trying to figure out whom to support for president, so the retired prosecutor from Harrisburg settled in for every night of the Democratic and Republican conventions the last two weeks.
In the end, Barbin, a Republican who once voted for Barack Obama, came away certain she will support President Donald Trump for reelection. And a significant factor wasn’t what she saw at the conventions. It was news footage of protests and riots in far-away cities.
“Every city where there were major riots and problems that continued was run by Democrats,” Barbin said Friday. “Normally when people break the law and they injure people and they loot and they commit arson, people get arrested for that, but in all those cities, they weren’t arresting people.”
That very message was one of the central and most hard-hitting themes of the Republican National Convention this week — and is set to be one of Trump’s driving arguments for the rest of the campaign. Trailing in national and battleground state polls, including in Pennsylvania, Trump is aiming to change the trajectory of the race by focusing on the crime and violence that have followed some protests against police brutality and racism.
Just as his convention peaked, the theme pointedly dovetailed with scenes from Kenosha, Wis. Buildings there burned and protesters clashed with officers after the latest police shooting of a Black man.
“Your vote will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans, or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists, agitators, and criminals who threaten our citizens,” Trump said in his nomination acceptance speech. His address Thursday night — delivered on the White House lawn and likely violating a federal law barring such open politicking on government property — signaled that his reelection hopes will revolve around that law-and-order promise.
While blasting those acting out of anger toward police, however, Trump said nothing about the self-styled militiamen who joined the fray in Kenosha, including a 17-year-old who is now accused of shooting and killing two protesters. The 70-minute remarks made one brief reference to police misconduct (”the justice system must hold wrongdoers fully and completely accountable, and it will,” Trump said), but focused heavily on predictions of chaos and crime if Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins the presidency.
“They will make every city look like Democrat-run Portland, Oregon,” Trump said. “No one will be safe in Biden’s America.”
Republicans say the offensive can bring back some of the moderate suburban voters who have recoiled from Trump.
“When it comes down to a choice between anarchy, where you’re afraid to leave your house, where roving mobs are running through the streets. ... It’s going to be an easy choice,” said U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, a staunch Trump supporter from York County.
And they say Trump’s vows to restore order are undercut by his pledge to “end” crime and violence in 2016. Now, they point out, the very clashes he is decrying are happening on his watch, after years in which he openly stoked racial grievances and criticized even peaceful protesters, including Black athletes.
“These are not images from some imagined ’Joe Biden’s America’ in the future. These are images from Donald Trump’s America today,” Biden said in a statement Thursday. “The violence we’re witnessing is happening under Donald Trump. ... To solve this problem, first we have to honestly admit the problem. But he won’t do it. Instead of looking to calm the waters, he adds fuel to every fire. Violence isn’t a problem in his eyes — it’s a political strategy.”
Biden has frequently said he opposes calls to “defund” the police, though Republicans repeatedly and falsely charged the opposite during their convention. Biden condemned looting and rioting this week, as he had done previously, including in Philadelphia in June.
With protests still unfolding, it’s unclear if the issue will have the effect Trump hopes — and whether his response is swaying swing voters, boosting conservative turnout, or merely energizing people who were already sure to vote for him. Most polls show that Americans are more concerned about the coronavirus, though in some surveys violent crime comes close.
The suburban voters Trump is courting have consistently rejected him in Pennsylvania — including two years ago when he drummed up fears of a migrant caravan heading to the southern U.S. border. Democrats made historic gains anyway.
Still, Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman who has endorsed Biden, said the issue creates “vulnerabilities” for Democrats.
“The whole point of the Biden campaign right now is to persuade independents and soft Republicans to come his way, and I do think that many of those folks believe public safety is important,” said Dent, who represented a moderate district around Allentown until 2018. “I think a lot of these people understand why the protests are occurring and the need for reforms. ... But looting, vandalism, burning of cars, and other lawless behavior is abhorrent to many of these same people.”
In Wisconsin, a Marquette Law School poll in early August found that approval of Black Lives Matter protests had fallen sharply, down to 48% from 61% in mid-June, entirely because of a loss of support among white voters. The poll was conducted before police in Kenosha shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, paralyzing him, and the ensuing unrest.
The same poll, however, found that 58% of registered voters in Wisconsin disapproved of Trump’s handling of protests.
Wisconsin, like Pennsylvania, is a critical swing state.Either could effectively decide who wins the election.
“Kenosha could be the message Trump has been grasping for,” GOP strategist Sarah Longwell wrote Thursday on the Bulwark, a website led by conservative Trump critics.
Longwell, a founder of Republican Voters Against Trump, cited two focus groups she led Wednesday with a total of 12 college-educated, suburban white women who all voted for Trump in 2016 but now disapprove of his performance. The group that was more aware of the situation in Wisconsin was more critical of the violence, and less sympathetic to the protests.
Almost every speaker at the GOP’s four-night convention brought up the unrest.The convention also featured more than a dozen Black speakers, most saying Trump is not racist.
In a poignant segment that aired Thursday, Ann Dorn, the widow of a retired police officer, spoke about her late husband, David, who was gunned down in June as he tried to intervene in the burglary of a gun shop in St. Louis following protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“Violence and destruction are not legitimate forms of protest. They do not safeguard Black lives. They only destroy them,” Dorn said of her husband, who was Black. David Dorn’s daughters have said he did not support Trump and would not have wanted his death to promote the president’s candidacy.
A night earlier, Vice President Mike Pence denounced the May killing of a federal agent in Oakland, Calif., without mentioning that the people charged in the shooting are associated with the anti-government, militant “boogaloo” movement, not Black Lives Matter.
Even before the convention, Republicans in Pennsylvania were pointing to violent scenes in Portland and Seattle.
“It is absolutely driving people to Trump,” Kerry Jobe, the former GOP chairman in Westmoreland County, in Southwestern Pennsylvania, said in July. “We don’t want Pittsburgh burned to the ground. We don’t want Greensburg burned to the ground. We don’t want that to come here.”
Fran Johannes, a 77-year-old Republican who only recently decided to vote for Biden, worried about how the scenes of violence will affect still-undecided voters.
“I’m afraid Biden is going to be done in by this,” said Johannes, a retired educator from Newtown Square. “Kenosha has a Democratic mayor, a Democratic governor, and you know, in this case, Trump doesn’t really have to say much. He can just point to those images on TV.”
Yet one undecided Republican said he doesn’t buy Trump’s claims.
“Either man sitting in the office is going to have to quell the violence,” said Allen Haas, 66, a retired software engineer from North Wales, Montgomery County. “It’s not like Mr. Biden’s going to allow the cities to burn.”
Haas, who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and sat out the 2016 election, protested the Vietnam War and said he was concerned by some of Trump’s aggressive response to today’s demonstrations.
Democrats dismissed the idea that Trump’s message will have the effect he hopes for.
“Like so many of the messages the Trump campaign is delivering these days, it seems like it’s just targeted at the same narrow band of supporters that he’s always targeting,” said Mark Nevins, a Democratic consultant based in Philadelphia. “This is a crisis that has arisen on his watch. ... It’d be like asking someone to hire an arsonist to put out a fire he started.”
State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a prominent Biden supporter from Philadelphia, had a similar view.
“People recognize that this country is on fire because of Donald Trump’s ineptness,” Kenyatta said. “He has really cost lives and livelihoods with his heated rhetoric, and what people want is someone who is an adult to help lead us through these complicated moments.”
Staff writers Andrew Seidman and Chris Brennan contributed to this article.