ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Once again, President Trump is responding to accusations that he used racist language and tropes by accusing others of being the real racists. His latest targets - Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings and civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am the least racist person there is anywhere in the world. When con men who I've known all - you know, almost all my business life - because I had to deal with him, unfortunately, in New York - but I got along with him, Al Sharpton - now, he's a racist. He's a racist.
SHAPIRO: What does all this mean for Trump's reelection campaign? NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has that story.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: For President Trump, to generate a controversy that highlights the racial divisions in America is nothing new. Republican pollster Whit Ayres says Trump's presidency has been all about reinforcing his base.
WHIT AYRES: This is par for the course with that strategy.
KEITH: Ayres says Trump has been consistent.
AYRES: He stands up for people who view the current culture in America as being threatened by people who they believe do not share the values and perspectives and outlook of that culture.
KEITH: Even though Trump only won 46% of the popular vote, he won the Electoral College. His approval rating is still in that same neighborhood - in the 40s. Peter Enns, who directs the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University, dug into some recent survey data and found that Trump's language on race and immigration could be hurting more than it's helping. Yes, it energizes his base voters. But...
PETER ENNS: Our data suggests the opposite effect among those who oppose Trump and a disproportionate negative effect among those who identify as independent.
KEITH: Katrina Pierson is an adviser to the Trump campaign who also happens to be African American. She insists these fights aren't about race and aren't so much strategic as a classic case of Trump hitting those who come after him.
KATRINA PIERSON: Honestly, you would have to be brand new to be shocked that President Trump would defend himself.
KEITH: And sure, there are people, including Republicans, who don't like Trump's language or the way he tweets. But she blames the media for getting spun up about his words and says, in the end, that's not what will determine how people vote.
PIERSON: And I think that most people would agree that whether you like a tweet or not really isn't going to dictate whether or not you want to keep your 401(k) or your private health insurance or a better education for your children.
KEITH: And that's the thing. Presidential reelection races aren't just a referendum on the man in office. They're a choice. Guy Cecil heads the Democratic group Priorities USA. I asked him whether the numbers exist for Trump to win again with the same divisive playbook he used last time.
GUY CECIL: I think they exist if Democrats stay home. I think they exist if Democrats don't make the argument that on issues around health care and wages and education, we are better for working-class people of every race.
KEITH: Pierson and Cecil are circling around the same idea. Despite the oxygen-sucking controversies, both argue policy also matters. Republican pollster Whit Ayres agrees.
AYRES: I truly do believe that who the Democrats nominate is the absolutely most critical aspect of this presidential election.
KEITH: And if that person offers policy ideas that are out of line with the views of a broad swath of the electorate or if that candidate isn't popular, then Ayres says Trump could well win.
Tamara Keith, NPR News.
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