Trump’s big RNC challenge: Reframing pandemic politics

Why We Wrote This

Most voters disapprove of how the president has handled the virus. His reelection may hinge on whether he can change that – favorably contrasting his approach to COVID-19 and the economy with that of Democrats.  

Chris Carlson/AP
Delegates begin to arrive for the first day of the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte, North Carolina. The gathering has been scaled down due to the coronavirus.

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There is an elephant in the room at this week’s Republican National Convention, so to speak: the coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump may prefer to focus on law and order, standing up to China, and the “socialist” Democrats. But COVID-19 remains by far the most important issue facing the nation in both impact and voter interest. It has reshaped almost everything about daily life in America – including the political conventions themselves.

The president to this point has focused mostly on therapeutics and the possibility that a vaccine will be available soon. That strategy could backfire if the vaccine timeline gets delayed or other problems emerge.

Still, Mr. Trump has some wiggle room to reframe the issue this week, says Republican communications strategist John Feehery. He can criticize the Democratic approach to the virus as heavy-handed, while striking a more optimistic tone and recasting 2020 as an obstacle, not a dead end.

“Obviously, this is not Morning in America. We’re not in as strong a position as Reagan was,” says Mr. Feehery. “But we were before COVID hit, and we can be post-COVID.”

There is an elephant in the room at this week’s Republican National Convention, so to speak: the coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump may prefer to focus on law and order, standing up to China, and the “socialist” Democrats. But COVID-19 remains by far the most important issue facing the nation in both impact and voter interest. It has reshaped almost everything about daily life in America – including the political conventions themselves.

Many of the speakers at last week’s almost entirely virtual Democratic National Convention touched on the pandemic in one way or another. Former Vice President Joe Biden has promised a more forceful federal coronavirus response, including, if necessary, lockdowns.

“As president, the first step I will take: We will get control of the virus that has ruined so many lives,” said Mr. Biden in his nomination acceptance speech.

President Trump to this point has focused on therapeutics and the possibility that a vaccine will be available soon. That strategy could backfire if the vaccine timeline gets delayed or other problems emerge.

Still, Mr. Trump has some wiggle room to reframe the issue this week, says Republican communications strategist John Feehery. He can criticize the Democratic approach to the virus as heavy-handed, while striking a more optimistic tone and recasting 2020 as an obstacle, not a dead end.

“Obviously, this is not Morning in America. We’re not in as strong a position as Reagan was,” says Mr. Feehery, referring to a 1984 campaign commercial. “But we were before COVID hit, and we can be post-COVID.”

Top issue for voters

Given the pandemic’s effect on everything from schools to shopping, and its rising death toll – some 177,000 in the United States – it’s unsurprising that the coronavirus is the dominant concern of the nation’s voters. In some ways it has overshadowed the presidential campaign itself.

Some 35% of Americans say the coronavirus is the most important problem facing the country today, the top response according to Gallup (the second biggest problem is “poor leadership”). At the same time, Gallup finds that the percentage of Americans mentioning economic issues as the nation’s biggest problem is near a 20-year low, despite a virus-driven recession and historic levels of unemployment.

For Mr. Trump, that’s both bad news and good news. His handling of the pandemic continues to be panned by voters. According to a running average of major polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight, 58.4% of Americans disapprove of his coronavirus response, while only 38.4% approve.  

At the same time, the electoral fate of incumbent presidents is most often tied to the economy – or more specifically, to voters’ perception of it. If Americans continue to be less concerned by the nation’s economic outlook, or see it as improving, that could give Mr. Trump a boost. 

Chris Carlson/AP
The room is set for the first day of the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

For that reason, the president should absolutely not let the coronavirus stand in the way of promoting his economic policies, says Republican pollster Ed Goeas.

About a quarter of the electorate likes Mr. Trump’s policies but dislikes him personally, says Mr. Goeas, CEO of The Tarrance Group. College-educated suburban women on average disapprove of his behavior, for instance, despite the fact that a majority of them approve of his economic moves.

Over the past five months, as the pandemic has remained front and center, voters have seen more of Mr. Trump’s controversial persona and less of his policies. Racial unrest and protests have contributed to that imbalance.

So even though the economy is not what it once was, returning the focus there could actually help the president, says Mr. Goeas.

“The thing that [voters are] going to hang their hat on, if you will, is the economy,” he says.

Yet the economy and the virus remain, of course, inextricably linked. In that sense, the president’s chances of reelection may depend more on whether voters begin to judge his virus response less harshly.

It’s certainly possible. November is still distant, and the U.S. pandemic situation could look different in a few months. The national number of new cases has lately begun to recede after hitting a peak in late July. Mask-wearing and social distancing may remain prevalent, helping to keep case counts down. And Mr. Trump’s bet on an imminent vaccine may pay off. 

At the same time, many allies have been arguing that Mr. Trump should go on the offensive on coronavirus. He should point out that mistakes were made at state levels and tout his own response as better than Mr. Biden’s would have been.

Biden as a “restoration” candidate

At last week’s virtual DNC, the Biden campaign worked hard to present its candidate as a national healer who would mobilize the power of the federal government against the coronavirus while addressing the nation’s bitter political, economic, and social divisions.

That’s a tall order. The point seemed to be to present a sharp personal contrast with the incumbent and offer the prospect of a return to pre-pandemic (and pre-Trump) normalcy.

“Biden is running a campaign of restoration rather than revolution,” says Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.

In 2016, surveys showed that voters who believed “our country is changing too fast” went for Mr. Trump, according to Dr. Grossmann. They were a crucial factor in Mr. Trump’s surprising strength in Rust Belt and Upper Midwest states. 

Now Mr. Biden is trying to win some of them back. He doesn’t need them all: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were decided by roughly 80,000 votes between them. If they’d gone for Hillary Clinton, she’d be the president running for reelection today.

There’s evidence some of these “restoration” voters may indeed be moving to Mr. Biden. He currently leads the polls in these states.

“He doesn’t turn them off like Clinton did,” says Dr. Grossmann.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our pandemic coverage is free. No paywall.

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