He is zigzagging the country for packed events, sometimes indoors, always with a packed and mostly unmasked crowd, preaching that the situation is rapidly improving while largely ignoring a death toll that has now surpassed 204,000 Americans amid fears that the country could have a second wave as temperatures drop.
It is a risky strategy, one he also tried in June, when he predicted the pandemic was fading just as cases began to spike in the Sun Belt. Trump’s political advisers almost uniformly agree privately that the coronavirus is his biggest albatross — and polling on his handling of the situation has not improved, with a majority of voters believing he has not taken it seriously enough.
The pandemic has become the driving issue of Joe Biden’s campaign for the White House and has been woven into his public appearances and advertising. “His catastrophic mishandling of covid continues to be a part of the message because so much of what we are living through now is because of that,” Biden campaign senior adviser Anita Dunn said.
This time around, Trump began weeks ago to point to a drop in infections and hospitalizations — the seven-day average of new cases bottomed out at the lowest level since June on Sept. 12 and has since rebounded about 20 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In states such as Arizona, where the number of cases has dropped sharply since the summer, campaign officials say polling on Trump’s handling of the pandemic has improved but remains an issue. The rate of infection has also dropped sharply in Florida, which suffered huge spikes over the summer, and Biden’s lead in the state in public polls has narrowed to within the margin of error in most surveys.
“Good news on the coronavirus front is good news for America. Biden has to try to get people to ignore the progress because it’s bad news for him politically,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. “Joe Biden, every single day for the last six months, has done nothing but criticize the president on coronavirus.”
Democratic strategists, both inside and outside then former vice president’s campaign, say Trump will suffer politically no matter what direction the pandemic moves over the coming weeks. The president’s ratings on handling the coronavirus have mostly decoupled, they argue, from the day-to-day statistics.
Polls have consistently found that a majority of the country disapproves of Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
Those results are replicated in key swing states. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll of Wisconsin found 54 percent of voters disapproved of his handling of the pandemic. In Florida, a Post-ABC poll found 52 percent of voters disapproved, 46 percent of them strongly.
Several internal polls by Democratic groups have detected some signs of an improving outlook among the public since cases peaked in the summer. But the same surveys point to continued high levels of fear over infection and a majority disapproval of Trump’s response to the virus.
“There really isn’t any evidence that even if infection rates have come down that what people think about this pandemic is anything less than a crisis,” Biden campaign pollster John Anzalone said.
Several Republican pollsters, though less public about their concern, have come to similar conclusions.
“I think the cake is baked. The only thing that is going to change the election is possibly a debate performance,” said one prominent Republican pollster, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not “want to worry about starting his car.” “The reason that the president has such a problem on coronavirus is he didn’t seem to care about it for so long.”
Trump’s strategy on the coronavirus has involved long stretches of publicly playing down its impact, predicting it would vanish and offering other upbeat assessments of the road ahead.
His earlier miscalculation, in June, occurred after the country had largely shut down as state by state was hit with waves of cases and hospitalizations, struggling to adequately protect hospital workers and combat a previously unknown virus.
Rather than counsel continued diligence at that point, Trump flouted the advice of his health advisers. He mocked mask-wearing and declared that the pandemic had been reduced to “embers” and “ashes.” His rush to return to normalcy ran headlong into a summer infection spike centered in Southern states.
He nonetheless held an indoor rally in Tulsa, a defiant stand against public health rules. The rally was not well attended by his standards and cases spiked again. The president, in response, demoted his campaign manager and temporarily attempted to take the virus more seriously, even canceling an in-person convention.
But soon he grew restless, pushing for more travel. He halted regular briefings about the virus and returned to mocking Biden for wearing a mask and engaging in social distancing.
The president has told advisers that his instincts will be proved right, that people want to gather at events and are less frightened of the virus than they were before. Several campaign officials said they believe Biden is making a mistake with his cautious approach, which has precluded any big rallies and most in-person voter outreach.
“If someone doesn’t want to go to an airport hangar, they don’t have to. But these people do. The reality is these people are enthusiastic about the president, and they want to go,” Richard Walters, chief of staff for the Republican National Committee, said in a recent interview.
As he has hastened his pace of public events in recent weeks, Trump repeatedly tried to change the topic of conversation away from the pandemic. Asked by a reporter Tuesday why he had said nothing about the latest death toll — as it exceeded a mark he once said would reflect he had done a very good job — the president did not answer. He turned to other reporters and said, “Go ahead. Anybody else?”
Trump’s campaign advertising, meanwhile, has shifted to boasts about the “Great American Comeback” as he seeks to shift focus to the economy, which, polls show, remains his strongest suit.
At events, his team has put chairs within inches of each other for guests as they try to pack the airport hangars where most recent appearances have occurred. His campaign has resumed bus tours and other events where supporters come in close contact with high-profile surrogates, including the president’s family. Vice President Pence has resumed extensive indoor events, where he walks the rope lines and shakes hands with people.
Trump’s crowds have also mocked mask mandates, even booing Republicans viewed as too deferential to public health advice. During a recent stop in Ohio, Trump had to defend Republican Gov. Mike DeWine when he took the stage. “He’s opening up,” the president said, seeking to calm the audience loudly booing DeWine.
The president posts pictures of crowds of thousands packed together to show political power, and aides say he is happier than he has been in months now that he is once again barnstorming the country.
Trump also has barreled ahead with overbroad declarations. He has dismissed the threat of the virus to those under age 18, even though the CDC advised in August that the infection rate among that group rose steadily between March and July — and Trump himself acknowledged earlier this year that the virus threatened all ages.
“Take your hat off to the young, they have a hell of an immune system,” Trump told a tightly packed crowd of supporters Monday night in Swanton, Ohio. “It affects virtually nobody. It’s an amazing thing.”
The campaign plans to stage large events several times a week in battleground states going forward, in an attempt to show that the nation is reopening. Trump has pushed in his events for everything from schools to college football to resume a normal schedule, and he has vowed that coming economic gains will be unprecedented.
“We think the rapidly improving economy, made possible by improvement in the coronavirus, will continue,” Murtaugh said.
But several campaign and White House officials say Trump has not helped himself as much as he might have. They are worried about several bad episodes, including his recent decision to contradict CDC Director Robert Redfield on the value of masks and the amount of time it will take to immunize the whole country once a vaccine is available. His comments to journalist Bob Woodward that he “always wanted to play it down” feature prominently in ads from Democratic groups.
The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the fight to replace her have taken attention away from the coronavirus, which several White House aides said they view as politically positive. One official said that because of the looming Supreme Court nomination fight, there was less media coverage last week when the death toll in the United States hit 200,000.
“When the number of cases is not leading the news, it makes it a little easier for Trump to try to change the subject, but even when it is not leading the news this is a dominant fact of life for Americans,” Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said. “And they are much less likely to be distracted by whatever bright shiny object Trump tries to dangle before them.”
Trump has also tried to use the possibility of a vaccine approval in late October to shift public perceptions of the virus.
“In the race for a vaccine, the finish line is approaching,” runs the voice-over on one of the president’s most frequently run ads this month. “Safety protocols in place. And the greatest economy the world has ever seen coming back to life.”
But Democrats remain confident that the strategy is unlikely to have an effect. A poll this month by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 62 percent of Americans were worried that political pressure would lead the Food and Drug Administration to rush approval, including more than a third of Republicans and about 6 in 10 independents.
No doubt was present at the airport rally in North Carolina. Trump mocked Gov. Roy Cooper (D) for stringent health restrictions and said there would be no more “lockdowns” while he was president.
Trump did not mention that he and all of his staff had been tested for the coronavirus. Neither he nor his senior team got too close to the crowd.