For President Donald Trump, the past week marked a terrible kickoff off to the fall campaign as he struggled to regain his balance amid multiple revelations that underscored the costly lies that he has told about the coronavirus pandemic and his breathtaking disregard for revered American military leaders.
It is still too early to know how Trump’s controversial comments — some alleged and others on tape — will influence voters given that many Americans’ opinions of Trump have hardened and the universe of persuadable voters is shrinking.
But the unflattering portrayal of the commander in chief in two bombshells reports around the Labor Day holiday — one in The Atlantic late last week and the other in Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book — come as the first absentee ballots are sent out and as voters traditionally start tuning into the election. It’s marked an inauspicious start of the home stretch for Trump.
Even before those developments, the President was trailing former vice president Joe Biden in the polls and was massively outraised by Biden’s team in August, raising alarm among Republicans about whether the President will have enough money to match Biden’s efforts through Election Day.
Though Trump tried to massage and reinterpret his own words during this week’s news conferences and a Thursday night rally in Michigan, Americans heard him on tape from February admitting to Woodward that the coronavirus was much more deadly than the flu and easily transmitted through the air — while saying virtually the opposite publicly about a pandemic that has now claimed more than 192,000 American lives.
As much as Trump tried to shift the conversation to more favorable topics, the week was dominated by coverage of those damning admissions and the continuing fallout over his alleged comments about the military.
He seemed particularly stung that he had few defenders in the military after the reports in The Atlantic that he privately disparaged dead American soldiers as “losers” and “suckers,” and proceeded to further alienate the military community during a Labor Day news conference where he argued that top Pentagon officials fight wars to keep defense contractors happy.
Those two storms buffeted his campaign after a month-long stretch in which the Wesleyan Media Project found that pro-Biden ads dominated the airwaves by a 2:1 margin. Polls show the former vice president maintaining a sizable lead nationally over Trump, with a slender edge in key battlegrounds like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states where the race appears to be tightening. There appears to be no clear leader in North Carolina and Florida.
Hitting the trail
Trump is looking to heighten enthusiasm by hitting the campaign trail, from his rally in Freeland, Michigan, on Thursday — where supporters did not socially distance and few wore masks — to his stops in Minden, Nevada, and Las Vegas this weekend, and Wisconsin next week.
His campaign operatives are putting their faith in the President’s formidable ground game, noting that while pro-Biden ads are dominating the air war, the former vice president has largely forgone the traditional in-person organizing that the Trump campaign has invested in. Trump Victory, a joint effort by the Republican National Committee and the campaign, says they have 2,000 field staffers in 17 states whose efforts are bolstered by some 2 million volunteers making calls and knocking on doors.
The campaign’s current messaging and Biden’s attempts to use Trump’s comments to Woodward as a strike against the President could have a more immediate effect by galvanizing Democratic voters at the same time that the party is leading a push for them to return their ballots early. As of CNN’s count late Friday for states that have made the data available, more than 11.8 million absentee ballots had been requested so far in 12 states, with Democrats leading requests in two key battleground states that disclose the party breakdown of those requests.
But the Democratic advantage in ballots requested may be driven by the fact that Democrats tend to favor mail-in voting more than Republicans. In a recent CNN poll, 68% of Trump voters said they preferred to vote in person on Election Day compared to 21% of Biden’s backers.
In one glimmer of encouragement for the Trump campaign this week, the Cook Political Report shifted two of their electoral college predictions to Trump’s favor — categorizing the state of Florida as a “toss up” rather than a state that “lean Democrat” and putting Nevada into the more competitive category of “lean Democrat” rather than “likely Democrat.”
Those moves were a warning sign for Biden because they reflect a narrowing advantage in the Electoral College map, which was Hillary Clinton’s downfall in 2016 even though she won the popular vote.
Though demographics in Nevada, where Trump heads this weekend, have increasingly favored Democrats, and Clinton narrowly won there in 2016, the state is notoriously difficult to poll and the anti-government, frontier ethos of its independent voters aligns well with Trump’s message.
The economic shutdown walloped the state’s economy, which depends heavily on tourism. And the pandemic has hobbled the Democrats’ ability to organize in-person at the state’s casinos, which has often been a central driver of turnout in Clark County where Las Vegas is located.
The US has rounded ‘the final turn’ on the virus?
Trump continues to see reopening the country as his path to victory, blithely tweeting praise Friday for a company that he said had ordered its workers back to the office this month.
The night before, at his Michigan rally, Trump again said the country is rounding “the final turn” in the pandemic.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, bluntly disagreed with the President’s assertion.
“Look at the data, the data speak for themselves,” Fauci told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer when asked about the President’s claim on “The Situation Room” Friday evening. “You don’t have to listen to any individual. And the data tells us that we’re still getting up to 40,000 new infections a day and 1,000 deaths. That’s what you look at. Look at the science, the evidence and the data and you can make a pretty easy conclusion.”
There has been a decline in new cases in 28 states over the past week and 14 states are holding steady, but Fauci has expressed concern about case surges in several states. On Friday, the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington increased their projections for American deaths by another 5,000, predicting 415,000 deaths by January 1.
“We are still in the middle of this and in order to get any semblance of normality, you’ve got to get that baseline number of infections way down,” Fauci said, adding that he felt “cautiously optimistic” that the US will have a vaccine by the end of this year.
Fauci also made it clear that Americans may not be able to resume their normal pre-pandemic activities — like going to a restaurant or a movie theater without a mask — until the latter part of next year.
That is, in part, because the coronavirus vaccine may only be 70% to 75% effective and because it will take time to get enough Americans vaccinated to have “an umbrella of immunity.”
Trump isn’t letting that reality color his rhetoric about the virus — or the campaign. While giving those rosy pronouncements about the status of the pandemic at his Thursday rally, he dismissed polls showing him behind Biden, noting that he won some of the states where he was down in the polls during his 2016 race with Clinton.
He said he had just seen a poll showing that he was “up” in Michigan: “I don’t know if that is good or bad,” he said. “Maybe we’re better off being down a little bit.”
“Michigan, you better vote for me,” he added. “I got you so many damn car plants.”
In a preview of his campaign events this weekend, Trump dismissed Woodward, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, as a “wack job,” and claimed once again that he was simply trying to keep the nation calm at the beginning of the pandemic — even though he has centered his entire presidential campaign on creating fear about a broad array of real and imagined threats to American life.
That strategy — and Americans’ ability to recognize the incongruence of Trump’s excuses — will be tested at the polls this fall.
After four years of sowing chaos, discord and mistruths, Trump is facing the judgment of voters once again. The revelations of the last week alone would have been disqualifiers for most other candidates seeking the Oval Office, but Trump has made a career of defying the odds. Still, even if voters ultimately give him another shot, the week’s events are yet another indicator that history will not judge him favorably.
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