The shift represents a remarkable acknowledgment by aides to a self-described “wartime president,” leading during what might have been a rally-around-the-flag moment, to effectively decide it is better to go on the attack than focus on his own achievements. Campaign polling found more than three-quarters of voters blamed China for the coronavirus outbreak, underscoring the potential benefits of tying the presumptive Democratic nominee to Beijing.
The planned China push, which has already been embraced by pro-Trump outside groups, comes as both the Trump and Biden campaigns have been anxiously recalibrating their plans in response to the most catastrophic economic and health crisis in the United States in generations. The two title contenders for the 2020 elections are finally set, but neither campaign, with their mismatched strengths and weaknesses, knows what the election arena will look like.
With the public distracted by economic collapse and disease, strategists have been trying to craft campaign blueprints that can accommodate everything from a country that reopens this summer to a fall election season without any door-knocking or massive rallies and with limited Election Day voting in person. They also face a challenge in inducing persuadable voters to focus on politics when they are consumed by their personal situations.
The Biden campaign faces an uphill battle with limited money to scale up its campaign to match the overwhelming scale and reach of the Trump operation, as the Democrats’ likely candidate is forced to operate from his basement recreation room while the president hosts daily events from the White House. Meanwhile, Trump’s reelection slogan “Keep America Great,” still printed on $30 campaign hats for sale online, now seems like a relic of a lost era before more than 34,000 deaths from the virus and about 22 million Americans seeking unemployment benefits in the last four weeks.
Strategists for both parties now believe the election is likely to hinge on the question of which candidate is better able to help the country recover from the pandemic disaster. Trump has been shown economic models that indicate double-digit unemployment could come to the United States, and some advisers, including Kellyanne Conway and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, have begun thinking about how to sell a comeback narrative — with Trump’s original asset of economic gains likely gone.
Conway, who remains in the West Wing, has emerged as a critic of the campaign team’s decision to focus on China. And some who have seen newly produced anti-Biden ads — which largely feature footage of the former vice president making comments about China and a potential travel ban — have derided them as weak. As of Friday afternoon, Trump had not given the final green light to the ads, officials said, and the president sometimes vacillates on his position toward China.
“Any campaign ads should show the commander in chief, the wartime president, signing $2 trillion in relief for Americans, deploying the USNS Comfort, working with Democratic governors and G-7 leaders, standing from the podium flanked by Drs. Fauci and Birx, mobilizing the private sector,” Conway said in an interview.
That view, at the moment, has not prevailed.
“Positive ads add nothing to him,” said a Trump campaign official familiar with the internal polling who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “It’s not going to get us more votes.”
Democrats say they welcome the China focus chosen by Trump, since they believe they can use it to highlight what they view as Trump’s mismanagement of the crisis, including the president’s past kind words for President Xi Jinping’s handling of the early days of the virus spread.
“When Donald Trump was buying China’s spin about containment of the virus, Joe Biden publicly warned him not to believe them,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said. “Now the American people are suffering and our economy is in meltdown.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment, while the Trump campaign declined to comment.
For weeks, Democrats have offered a unified front blaming the depth of the crisis on the president’s leadership, even as they acknowledge that Trump did not create the viral threat.
“The day after the election we will look back at the coronavirus crisis as a moment where Trump lost substantial ground and missed probably his best opportunity to be successful,” Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said. “All of the recent polling evidence is that Trump’s leadership or more precisely his lack of leadership has hurt him, particularly in the last weeks.”
But as Democrats seek to capitalize on the moment, they remain handicapped by a historic disadvantage in the size and scope of their campaign operations.
“Putting all of the events of the pandemic aside, Donald Trump was entering the election season with the greatest cash advantage of any incumbent president in American history,” said Steve Schmidt, the 2008 presidential campaign manager for Sen. John McCain, who is supporting Biden in this election. “He also had the greatest technological advantage over his opponent in history.”
That advantage, including more than $170 million in cash on hand between the Republican Party and the campaign, gives Trump a huge head start in reaching voters, with an extensive donor network and data operation that has been built over multiple campaign cycles. The Trump campaign also boasts a massive social media presence, which has been driving 1 million views a night to campaign briefings by Trump family members and other supporters broadcast primarily on Facebook.
The RNC, for instance, said volunteers had made 17 million phone calls since March 12.
Jim Messina, the campaign manager for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection run, issued a public warning to Democrats in a recent appearance on a podcast hosted by David Plouffe, who managed Obama’s 2008 effort. Messina says he tells his foreign political clients to model themselves on the digital-first tactics that have been pioneered by the Trump campaign.
“The numbers are pretty stark. Joe Biden has 4.6 million Twitter followers. Donald Trump has 75 million. Joe Biden has 1.7 million Facebook fans. Donald Trump has 28 million,” Messina said. “Biden’s first virtual online chat got 5,000 people. Just one with [presidential daughter-in-law] Lara Trump gets 945,000.”
Both Messina and Plouffe have urged the Biden campaign to move quickly and begin organizing and contacting voters while they are still at home. But the Biden campaign, which succeeded in the primaries despite an underfunded and understaffed operation, has announced few new hires in recent weeks. The campaign now regularly coordinates on communications, technology and data with the Democratic National Committee, but the two groups are still working on striking a joint fundraising agreement, a crucial step that will dramatically increase Biden’s fundraising ability.
Like the Trump campaign in 2016, the Biden operation will have to rely heavily on the infrastructure that has been built for it by his national and state parties. The Democratic operation is far larger than in 2016 but still much smaller than the Republican infrastructure. The campaign has separately been struggling with divisions in the high-dollar donor committee, after Biden distanced himself from the super PAC that helped him through the primaries in favor of a group that worked to elect Clinton and Obama.
Without an ability to broadcast his message like Trump does, some Democrats worry that Biden will struggle through the summer to get out his message, a common problem for candidates running against incumbent presidents. Since 1932, only two incumbents, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, have failed to win reelection.
“He’s having a hard time breaking through,” said one Democratic member of Congress from a battleground state, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be frank about the presidential race. “I still hear people saying that the president cares.”
Other party veterans have been coming forward with warnings. Though polls show bright spots for Biden in battlegrounds states, his overarching theme of “restoring the soul of the nation” is weaker than messages that other Democrats pushed in the primaries, according to a recent survey conducted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
About 54 percent of respondents in more than a dozen battleground states felt more positive toward Biden after hearing his pitch that the country is in a “battle for the soul of America.” In comparison, 63 percent had more positive feelings after hearing a message about tackling corruption in America — similar to one pushed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
And 85 percent of voters who backed Sanders in the primaries over Biden felt more positive about a generic candidate after hearing the corruption message, the poll found.
Greenberg warned that despite largely positive polling, they should not get too confident. “Do they begin to think like Clinton that this race is certain and I’m now going to focus on governing?” Greenberg asked. “Or does he genuinely try to avoid that kind of defection that took place in 2016?”
But he’s one of the few Democrats sounding any kind of alarm. “People view Biden as safe, as honest, as decent,” said Joe Wineke, former Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman, who believes Biden will do well there. “He’s like my comfortable old shoe. And I like my comfortable old shoe.”
In Ohio, a state that many Democrats have dismissed as unwinnable, former governor Ted Strickland said that Trump’s handling of the disease has been so inept that the state should be back on the table for Democrats in November.
“I”m not saying that we’re going to win Ohio, but I do think that the circumstances have changed to the point where we have a fighting chance to win Ohio,” he said. “What’s happening in Ohio and around the country — but certainly in Ohio — is a much larger problem than I had to deal with the Great Recession.”
Experts who are advising Biden agree that the election will hinge on how the country is affected by the virus. “From Biden’s perspective, your political fortunes hinge on the quality of your job, how well you do your job,” said Jared Bernstein, a longtime Biden economic adviser. “From Trump’s perspective, your political fortunes hinge on how well you can convince people you’re doing your job.”
While Biden struggles to build his campaign, Trump’s advisers have been struggling to keep the White House and campaign operations on the same page, a common challenge in the non-hierarchical structure that surrounds the president. White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, has been overseeing the campaign from his office in the West Wing but has focused of late on a sprawling coterie of coronavirus tasks, people close to him say.
For example, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale did not initially know that Trump had plucked Kayleigh McEnany from the campaign to become White House press secretary, according to two people familiar with the events. He first found out from news reports.
Trump has been constantly asking his advisers and outside allies about how he’s doing and what the polling is showing, according to four people who have spoken to him.
Campaign and White House advisers have given Trump different — and sometimes contradictory — advice on when to reopen the economy, whether he should cut his lengthy news conferences and when he can have his first rallies again. None are scheduled, but some, like Conway, have argued that outdoor rallies are possible. Many allies want the briefings shorter.
Trump’s campaign has been testing ads hitting Biden on comments he has made about China going back to 1979 after internal campaign polls, shared with Trump, found the president’s approval ratings sagging, particularly among certain ethnic groups. Parscale briefed Trump on the polling in recent days, according to a campaign official.
Trump has also been briefed on internal polls that show his base voters want businesses to reopen in their states. In recent days, Trump has announced that he will defer to governors to make the decision, reversing his earlier claims that he would be in charge of the decisions.
One official said some in the White House were obsessed with growing Trump’s overall approval ratings, noting that this number was unlikely to move much.
Parscale has repeatedly encouraged surrogates in recent calls and private conversations to hit Biden instead of just focusing on Trump and his coronavirus response, a strategy that echoes the approach Obama took in early 2012 to define GOP challenger Republican Mitt Romney.
McDaniel, the RNC chairwoman, has also embraced the polling showing that voters are angered by China’s early response to the coronavirus. She has also joined in another emerging theme, hitting the 77-year-old Biden on his mental acuity and age, arguing that his advisers want to play “Biden seek,” hiding the nominee from the limelight.
“When he does these library counterbriefings, they don’t go well,” McDaniel said of Biden. “I don’t think the American people have dialed into the 2020 version of Joe Biden.”
Democrats, who have long raised questions about Trump’s mental stability, are likely to respond in kind.
Nonetheless, Trump, 73, has also joined in mocking Biden for his age and poor performance, though he told people that it sounded like there was nothing wrong with Biden after their phone conversation about the covid-19 response on April 6, according to two people familiar with his comments.
During a briefing last July with Republican lawmakers and aides at the White House, Trump joked that plastic surgery had hurt Biden’s ability to think clearly, according to two people who attended the briefing.
“The best thing he’s got going for him is Mueller,” Trump said of Biden, a day after the special counsel who investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election, Robert S. Mueller III, had appeared shaky in testimony before Congress.
Talking about Biden, he pointed at his temple and shook his head, explaining that he did not think Biden was all the way with it, both of these people said. Allies say pointing out Biden’s gaffes and incoherent sentences and seeming reliance on notes and staffers at times is key to their 2020 strategy.
In the meantime, outside groups have gone to war over the candidates’ stances on China in anticipation of the campaign moves. Ads released last week by America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC, alleged that Biden had “led the charge” to increase the power of China as part of the D.C. elite. American Bridge, a Democratic group, responded with super PAC ads accusing Trump of putting China’s interest above America’s in the coronavirus crisis.
It’s a fight that is likely to escalate for the next several weeks. Brian O. Walsh, president of America First, said the group’s ad targeting Biden over his stance toward China was not “rocket science” and was based on polling that shows growing American angst over Beijing’s actions on issues ranging from trade to fentanyl. Such concerns are especially resonant in the Midwest and have been amplified by the spread of the coronavirus, a pandemic that originated in China, he said.
“I definitely have seen data that shows voters are very upset with China right now. As more and more gets uncovered, it is clear they were not forthcoming,” McDaniel said.
The president has also continued to hammer China in recent days, telling senators and governors in separate calls Thursday that they should expect to hear him discuss the country more.
“I’m not happy about it. It’s a disgrace,” he said on the call with governors, according to audio obtained by The Washington Post, before telling them they’d learn more.