A new reality is dawning for Democrats: The November election will likely hinge on the way American voters see President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus.
That belief has grown clearer over the last month, as nearly every Democratic organization has focused their time, messaging and paid media on framing the President’s response as an abject failure that highlights the chaos around his White House and the unpredictability he has ushered into American politics.
The full extent of Trump’s impact on controlling coronavirus, a pandemic that has wholly remade American life, is likely months away from being revealed. But Democrats aren’t waiting – for either voters to reengage with electoral politics or for the full results of Trump’s mitigation efforts to become clear – an acknowledgment that they believe they must define the President as a failure now to have success come November.
“We have to make the arguments about why he hasn’t done a good job as president,” said Steve Schale, a veteran Florida political operative who runs Unite the Country, a PAC supporting former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. “Frankly, there’s not a clearer moment than now that we’re in this mess, not because he created the coronavirus, but for 50, 60, 70 days, he didn’t think it was a big deal.”
The thinking among Democrats is that while Trump isn’t to blame for coronavirus, he can be blamed for the federal government’s delayed response. Additionally, Democrats believe that the virus has crystallized issues they have long faulted Trump for: the chaos around his administration, the unpredictability he has injected into American life and Republican health care policy.
“There is no question that Donald Trump and the Trump administration’s response is going to be central” to the election, said Guy Cecil, the head of Priorities USA. “But I also think it is going to highlight some of the issues we have been talking about this entire time” like health care.
Political ad spending over the last month makes clear how dramatically coronavirus has shifted political messaging: With most American remained under stay-at-home orders, Democrats dominated the broadcast television and national cable spending with anti-Trump ads focused on coronavirus, even as most political spending is down.
Super PACs, like Priorities USA and American Bridge, have released scores of television and digital ads focused on Trump’s handling of the virus and his early comments diminishing the spread. Biden’s campaign has released a series of digital ads on the virus, including one that tracked Trump’s comments as the virus spread. And the Democratic National Committee has worked with state parties from Florida to Michigan to Pennsylvania to slam how Trump’s handling of coronavirus has impacted the battleground states.
The tonal shift is an acknowledgment that, even as aspects of the presidential campaign continue, nearly every American voter is focused on their health and safety above all else.
The virus is “front and center in the election,” said Bradley Beychok, the president of American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC that has blistered Trump with attack ads about his response to the pandemic. “This is the unifying issue that has taken over immediately because one, this is a crisis affecting every American’s daily life and two, this is an economic issue that is ongoing and developing.”
The latest round of digital advertising from American Bridge juxtaposes the rise in coronavirus cases with Trump’s words downplaying the crisis. The ad, which will target voters in the battlegrounds of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, also charts all the times the President played golf as the outbreak spread.
“To hold Trump to account on Covid-19,” said Beychok, “all you need is a calendar and a camera.”
Jim Messina, a longtime Democratic operative and adviser to former President Barack Obama, said he was watching focus groups recently and was struck by how “voters won’t and can’t think about anything else.”
“You literally couldn’t” get insights on other topics, Messina recalled. “There’s just no appetite for it.”
The strategy of hammering Trump for coronavirus is not without risks. Many Americans – including some Democrats – want the President to succeed in combating coronavirus, meaning an overly negative campaign that looks like it is cheering the virus’ spread could backfire.
Cecil said his team has tried to do so primarily by using the President’s words against him, something they believe is more sensitive than a more sensationalized ad.
“It is really important that when we are communicating with people about this that we understand the context and that we are sensitive to the real trauma they are going through,” Cecil said. “Our goal is not to add to the trauma, it’s to inform people.”
The Trump campaign has called out the Democratic efforts.
“While President Trump is leading the nation in the war against the virus, Joe Biden and his Democrat allies have decided to serve as the opposition in that war,” campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.
And the Biden campaign isn’t necessarily fighting this accusation that they are opposing Trump’s actions.
“We’re paying the price for Donald Trump’s malpractice, and we deserve a president who will rebuild the American middle class while restoring competence and empathy to the Oval Office,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden spokesman.
Pivoting to a general defined by coronavirus
This pivot to coronavirus messaging comes at what would have been a key time in the campaign, as Biden and Trump turn to the general election now that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has dropped out of the race.
Ordinarily, both campaigns would be spending millions to further define their opponent. That is still happening – Trump’s campaign released a factually questionable ad this week that attacked Biden’s ties to China and raised questions about his mental ability but now within the context of the pandemic.
A new seven-figure digital ad from the Republican National Committee praises Trump for his response to the outbreak.
“Our latest ad buy further fuels our robust digital presence as we continue to meet voters where they are right now – online and in their homes,” said Richard Walters, the Republican National Committee’s chief of staff. “The American people have seen President Trump respond to this crisis with unprecedented leadership, and they will respond with their votes in November.”
One of the biggest concerns among Democrats is that Trump, because of the platform the White House offers, is spending hours on national television every day, compared to Biden’s one-off interviews from the basement studio he built in his Delaware home.
Trump has taken to headlining daily White House briefing and touting them as moments for his supporters to watch his real-time response to the virus. Trump has lauded the ratings the briefings have been getting, seemingly replacing the television time has received from his weekly raucous rallies across the country with daily sparring matches with the press.
“Americans want to see their President out front and leading in a time of crisis and that’s exactly what President Trump is doing,” Murtaugh of the Trump campaign said.
Democratic allies have openly worried about the exposure Trump receives from the briefings.
“The only thing the President is willing to engage in around this crisis is to appear like the commander in chief, not the counselor in chief, no the government in chief, not being effective, but to appear like he is in control,” said Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers.
Weingarten said that she views the briefings as an extension of his rallies, because “much of what he is doing (during them) is political, not factual.”
There is new evidence, though, that Trump’s daily briefings may have downsides.
Polls show public support for Trump’s handling of the outbreak declining. A majority of Americans – 55% – now say the federal government has done a poor job preventing the spread of the virus in the US, up about 8 points in a week, according to a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS.
And the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board this week warned that Trump’s “outbursts” against his critics during the briefings are “notably off key at this moment” and encouraged him to let Vice President Mike Pence lead on communicating with the public and press.
This comes after Trump’s initial response, and his time at the press podium in the White House, raised his approval rating.
“Trump saw an initial sugar high in his ratings on handling of the crisis because, as a citizen, if you have fear and anxiety, you want to look to the President for some encouragement,” American Bridge’s Beychok said. “But he can’t help himself from trying to cause distractions or disagreeing with the experts, and I think when people see that, it’s reversed its course.”
Political advertising takes a dive – for now
Even as Democrats turn their focus to coronavirus, the last month has seen a huge drop in overall advertising in the presidential race, an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project shows. Part of the drop is attributed to the end of the Democratic primary and the departure of the big-spending former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“The messaging and the attacks that we’ve seen on (coronavirus) do feel louder … in part because there are fewer messages overall,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, who teaches government at Wesleyan University and co-directs the political advertising project.
A direct focus on health care helped Democrats win back the House in 2018 and even before the coronavirus outbreak, health care was emerging again as a top issue in 2020 advertising for Democrats. So, Fowler added, it’s not surprising that Democrats appear poised to focus on the pandemic and the Trump administration’s response to it as part of their larger strategy to hit Trump and Republicans on health care.
Democratic candidates and groups are also dramatically outspending Republicans on the airwaves as both political parties jockey for advantage amid the coronavirus outbreak that has upended everyday American life and suspended normal campaign activity.
Democrats have spent more than $15.4 million on broadcast TV and national cable ads focused on federal races since March 16 when the Trump administration first announced guidelines to slow the spread of the deadly virus, according to data from Kantar’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. That’s nearly three times the $5.4 million spent by Republicans during the same period. The analysis covered advertising through Tuesday.
“I think a major reason we’re seeing such a disparity between the two parties ad spending in recent weeks is that the Democrats taking advantage of what they perceive to be a poor response to the pandemic from the President,” CMAG’s Mitchell West said. “They’re getting in hits wherever they can in an otherwise quiet political landscape.”
After a sustained onslaught from liberal groups, Trump’s allies have begun to respond.
In addition to the RNC’s digital buy, a super PAC supporting Trump, America First Action, plans a $10 million TV, digital and mail campaign to attack Biden in three key battleground states – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. That effort is slated to begin next week.