Trump’s COVID: The Last Straw for Swing Voters?
All the way back in early March, I wrote an article in this forum about how the Coronavirus could hand the presidency to Joe Biden.
The gist of that piece was that the pandemic could erode support for Trump on multiple levels. Not among his stalwart base, of course — but among the segments of America’s electorate who are actually going to decide who ends up in the Oval Office less than a month from now. Here’s how I summed it up back then:
“Do independents and moderates really like Trump for who he is and what he represents, rather than what he’s put in their wallets?”
This question is just as valid today. Because like it or not, the people who really elect presidents in the U.S. are those in the vast middle-ground of the political spectrum. The undecided, unaffiliated, or uncommitted voters whose ballots could be swayed one way or another by events, debates, policy moves, etc. I’m not just talking about independents, either — America’s largest self-identified voting bloc, by the way…
But also RINOs, old-school Dems who no longer recognize their party, Libertarians and other third-party-ers, and a host of other displaced, disaffected, disenfranchised, or other slivers of the electorate who don’t fit neatly into the zealous base ranks of either major party. Altogether, this adds up to tens of millions of people.
To secure re-election, these are the voters Trump needs to win over decisively, like he did in 2016. But even as you read this, these crucial voters are asking themselves the timeless election-year question: Am I better off now than I was four years ago?
By this barometer, I’m not so sure Trump’s going to get overwhelming support from undecided middle-grounders this time around. And if he doesn’t, I think it’ll boil down to one thing, more than any other…
His inconsistent and sometimes tone-deaf messaging on the Coronavirus crisis.
Trump’s rhetoric can’t beat the virus — but it could beat him in the election
Notice I cited Trump’s “messaging” about coronavirus, not his actions…
That’s an important distinction here. Because it really can’t be reasonably argued that President Trump hasn’t done a whole lot of things that have no doubt been instrumental in reducing the spread of coronavirus in America, or saving lives among those who’ve been infected.
Shutting down much of the travel between the U.S. and China on Jan. 31 comes to mind, as does his Feb. 29 travel restrictions against Iran, and his March 11 ban on foreigners inbound from 26 European nations. So does his mass mobilization of domestic manufacturing of PPE, ventilators, and other crucial items under the Defense Production Act.
And of course, no one can deny the historically fast progress the U.S. has made toward a potential coronavirus vaccine under his “Operation Warp Speed,” which has provided funding and support for numerous vax candidates. Let’s also not forget Trump’s push for the biggest stimulus/relief package in U.S. history to help cushion the virus’s blow on ordinary Americans. There’s a lot more I could say, too…
But my point is that in Washington, what a politician actually does carries far less weight than what he or she says and projects. Of course, this is exactly the opposite of how things work in everyday American life, where people tend to be judged by their actions at least as much as their words, if not more. This “real world” is where Trump comes from, so he could be forgiven in the early days for some messaging blunders while he was getting his sea— er, swamp legs.
By the time coronavirus hit these shores, however, Trump had been in the Big Chair for three years. He’d sustained and weathered many cheap-shots and outright attacks from both inside the beltway and from the major press. So he must’ve understood how his words and outward attitude about coronavirus would be leveraged by the left to undermine his strong actions against the disease.
But that didn’t stop him from applying the same shoot-from-the-hip, cocksure, and often contradictory messaging style he uses everywhere else to the coronavirus crisis. And in so doing, Trump has given his political enemies — which include the mass media, masters of messaging — all the paint they need, in every color, to portray him as a heartless con man who doesn’t care that Americans are dying as long as the stock market goes up.
Whether this is true is irrelevant. In an election year, the only thing that’s relevant is what undecided voters can be made to believe. That’s the brass ring, and Trump has not kept his eye on it, obviously.
There’s too much Donald Trump in Donald Trump
This nation is full of pundits who argue about all the things Trump should’ve done, should’ve done earlier, later, to a different degree, or shouldn’t have done at all to better control the coronavirus in America. But I’m not going to be another one of those Monday morning quarterbacks…
Because my point with this piece is that Donald Trump could’ve been looking at a cakewalk re-election right now by doing all the same things about the coronavirus, at the same times, and in the same proportion — just framing the virus in a different way with his rhetoric and personal conduct.
By downplaying the virus at every turn, Trump has made himself look out-of-touch. Because it’s easy to be cavalier about a deadly pandemic when you’re the most protected person in the world, safe in your bunker. But it’s another matter when you’re out in the real workaday world, breathing everyone else’s air. And now that the president’s on record admitting to minimizing the “deadly stuff” (his own words) as a matter of strategy, he now looks deceptive, as well.
By continuing to hold crowded rallies and events, Trump has made himself look heartless and king-like. Because to many, there can only be two justifications for that kind of conduct: Either the president doesn’t believe in the prevention guidance his own agencies and authorities put forth for the American people, or he thinks himself so important that others should gladly risk their lives for the chance to bask in his majesty. Neither is a good look for a re-election campaign.
By displaying visible and vocal disdain for masks, distancing, and other safety measures, Trump has made himself look like a flat-Earth crisis denier. He’s also given the Democrats and the media abundant ammunition to attack him as an image-obsessed narcissist who’s gas-lighting the American people at every turn about the severity and resiliency of the coronavirus.
And by catching the virus himself, despite all his tax-payer funded protection against it, Trump has demonstrated to many that he’s just plain wrong about its prevalence, decline, and overall transmissibility. It’s also easy for the president to issue tone-deaf tweets like “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” when he’s got a cadre of the world’s best doctors attending him around the clock — and instant access to all the most proven and experimental therapeutics on the planet. Rank and file Americans do not have those things, and they know it.
Just like with his record of strong and productive actions against the coronavirus, I could also go on and on about Trump’s poor messaging and image projection with regard to the disease…
But again, my point is that Americans are not stupid, especially those among us who are really going to decide this election. These people are weighing everything out in their minds right now and actively trying to make an informed decision about whether to cast their vote for Trump or Biden.
My fear is that when they “zoom out” on this entire situation, too many of them will see what the Democrats and the media want them to see: A mob of ignorant, defiant Trump-worshipping zealots that have carelessly spread coronavirus by following the president’s macho, cavalier words and attitudes. I worry that in deciders’ minds, this’ll seem like a wash against Trump’s very serious and substantial policy actions against this deadly disease — or worse, a net negative to the country.
What floors me, as I touched on earlier, is how easily Trump could’ve flipped this script and likely assured himself of re-election without doing anything substantively different than what he’s done.
He could’ve so easily owned the coronavirus issue with a few well-chosen words and a little bit of personal leadership on masks, social distancing, large gatherings, etc. congruent with what his own experts were recommending. This simple strategy would’ve taken a lot of big cards away from his adversaries.
And all the while, he still could’ve advocated for aggressively reopening schools and the economy, increasing stimulus and relief funding, reducing our dependency on China for critical supply chains, and many other substantive policy stances that actually do resonate positively with the majority of Americans…
This was Trump’s ticket to re-election, in my opinion, and he blew it.
Now he’s lagging in the polls by double digits and trending in the wrong direction, while also facing a voting public the majority of which believes the coronavirus’s spread in America is largely the government’s fault (read: Trump’s fault). That’s going to be a fearful perception to overcome during an election dominated by the economy and the virus, two issues that are inextricably linked.
The bottom line is that there’s too much Donald Trump in Donald Trump, and it could cost him the White House. If he loses this election, it won’t be because of the things he’s done — many of which are good for this country…
It’ll be because of poor, inconsistent, and wrong-headed message discipline.
In other words: Because of his big, fat mouth and big, fat ego.
Freedoms Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder