President Donald Trump said early Friday that he and first lady Melania Trump have tested positive for the coronavirus. (Oct. 2)
Already trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the polls in Michigan, President Donald Trump’s revelation Friday that he and his wife tested positive for coronavirus appeared to deal another blow to his chances of winning the battleground state.
On Friday afternoon as the president was being moved as a precautionary measure to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, the Trump campaign said it was postponing or moving events involving the president online for now, robbing it of perhaps its most vital asset, Trump’s vivid, often combative onstage persona. And while there were no scheduled events in Michigan as yet, there were expected to be more. The loss of any before the Nov. 3 election reduces the likelihood of him making up ground in Michigan and other states he needs to win, however.
“From a practical standpoint, if he abides by health officials’ recommendations, he is off the campaign trail for 10 days during a crucial period of time when the remaining undecided voters are making their decisions,” said Peter Wielhouwer, a political science professor and director of the Institute of Government and Politics at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. “The best thing he can hope for is he exhibits no symptoms.”
On Friday, officials said Trump and his wife, Melania, were exhibiting only mild symptoms with the president’s doctor saying he was “fatigued but in good spirits.” Officials in both parties offered hopes for their speedy recoveries. That included Biden, the former vice president, who tested negative for the virus and held a campaign appearance in Grand Rapids.
But even in the best case scenario — a quick recovery and return to the campaign trail with no lingering effects from a virus that has killed more than 207,000 Americans since March — the diagnoses raises deep questions about how the Trump campaign can regroup. That’s not to say it can’t. Trump is a unique politician who has defied the odds before and has an Electoral College advantage like most Republicans since it is skewed somewhat toward less populous states that tend to be more conservative. But finding a discernible advantage is difficult at best.
That’s especially true with this being only the most recent example of controversy surrounding the president after a debate performance where he often refused to allow Biden to answer questions. That came on the heels of revelations by the New York Times that Trump has paid little in federal income taxes in recent years and owes hundreds of millions in personal loans set to come due soon.
Here’s a look at some of the issues surrounding where the campaign goes from here:
No one is really sure what happens now
More than anything else, the atmosphere surrounding the campaign is one of confusion. No one is entirely sure what Trump will or won’t do, whether he will continue to attack Biden on Twitter, or whether he will scale back his efforts while recovering. No one is sure whether the debates he has scheduled with Biden — for Oct. 15 and Oct. 22 — will take place.
At the website FiveThirtyEight.com, which analyzes statistical data, the political team on Friday discussed the president’s positive test. They couldn’t come up with a firm answer for whether it hurts or helps the president’s chances, largely because there is no event in U.S. history with which to compare it. And no one is sure how the campaigns and the media will react.
That said, there are a host of items to consider, most of which don’t appear to work to Trump’s benefit.
The biggest question is time
Put bluntly, the calendar is working against the president. Nationally, Biden leads Trump by about 7 percentage points in the average of polls put out by RealClearPolitics.com, which aggregates political data. In the battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — which all went for Trump in 2016, the first time they had all swung for a Republican nominee since 1984 — Biden’s lead was anywhere from 5 to 6 percentage points on average.
Could Trump make up that ground in time? Possibly, but it’s hard to see how if his campaign can’t spend much of the next two weeks holding rallies and taking advantage of Trump’s unique rapport with his base. Even if he does get going again in two weeks’ time, that leaves a much smaller window to make up ground. Decisions will have to be made about where he should spend his remaining days.
In September, he held a big rally outside of Saginaw, attracting thousands, some of whom — like the president — weren’t wearing masks. But if polls continue to show Biden running close or ahead in states Trump has to win — such as Florida or Ohio — there is a question whether he’ll spend time in states that may seem out of reach, such as Michigan.
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“I think in practical terms any time Trump is not campaigning, any time he’s not rallying the troops, any time he’s not being bombastic and shoring up his bandwagon, he’s losing ground,” said Dee McBroom. a Democratic political consultant in southeastern Michigan.
It’s not necessarily all bad news for Trump
Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman, said while taking Trump off the campaign trail obviously hurts, he’s not sure how much. The campaign, he said, will come up with other ways to fire up the base.
He also said he doesn’t know whether Trump moving off the campaign trail will hurt him that much because voters have already decided in large part who they are voting for. “It’s a base election, there’s not a lot of undecided voters,” he said. “It’s a question of turnout and getting your people to the polls.”
But that raises another set of questions as well. One is how the news of the president’s infection affects millions of voters in Michigan and elsewhere who are mailing or dropping off absentee ballots already. Trump has denigrated the practice as corrupt without evidence but it has been embraced widely as a way to stop the spread of a virus Trump now has himself.
How effective can Trump’s message against widespread absentee voting — and his insistence that voting in person is safer — be when he has tested positive?
And having downplayed the risks — and at times denigrated measures such as mask-wearing — how do his most staunch supporters, some of whom have followed the president’s lead in not considering the virus a serious threat, respond to his getting it?
“What are they going to say now?” said Bernie Porn, pollster for EPIC-MRA in Lansing, which does work for the Free Press and last month did a survey showing Biden leading by 8 points in Michigan. “My crystal ball says I don’t see where Trump can make an advantage out of having the coronavirus.”
Could there be a silver living for Trump?
Eric Hannula, a 59-year-old Trump supporter in Springfield Township in Oakland County, said Friday he wasn’t so sure the diagnoses hurts the president’s chances of winning in Michigan, saying, “It may even generate more support for him.”
One way it could possibly do so is by potentially generating a sympathy vote for the president. Or it could arguably create a rally-round-the-flag effect, which is when citizens who might normally disagree with a politician come to his defense at a time of what appears to be a national emergency. Arguing against that, however, are Trump’s actions — his boorish behavior toward Biden at the debate and his habit of launching personal attacks — which make it unlikely he’ll generate much sympathy.
On the other hand, there is the possibility that, should Trump take a step back from the vitriol he exudes, it could potentially help him. A month or so after the pandemic began, at a time when Trump appeared more respectful of his scientific advisers’ opinions and he didn’t seem to be downplaying the severity of it, his job approval numbers clicked up somewhat, before falling again.
Could a quieter Trump have the same effect?
“It’s possible,” said Anuzis. “One of the reasons the Biden campaign had their basement strategy was because Trump was sort of campaigning against Trump (by his behavior)… The fact that he’s off the campaign trail may, with some voters, have a positive effect… Theoretically, it could have a positive effect but it’s too early to tell.”
But the coronavirus conversation hurts Trump
One of the biggest problems for the president, assuming a full recovery for a 74-year-old who may be particularly susceptible , is that anything that undermines the projection of strength for a candidate who likes to attack weaknesses on the part of his rivals could hurt him. He likes to refer to Biden as “Sleepy,” even though there is no evidence of that; he questioned whether Biden was “smart” at the first debate with no proof to do so
Beyond that is the fact that, with his handling of the crisis widely disparaged, Trump would like to talk about anything else. He’d rather be discussing an economy that continued to grow during the first three years he was in office or cime in the cities — anythng rather than coronavirus.
“The race was already being shaped by the pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout,” said Kevin Madden, a Washington, D.C. public affairs executive who worked as an adviser on both of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns and has been a frequent pundit on cable news. “The Trump administration’s response has turned the race into a referendum, one that they were already losing. All this does is crystallize that.”
To the degree that the president’s diagnoses gets Michiganders to take COVID-19 more seriously, it’s bad news for the Trump campaign. An EPIC-MRA poll done for the Free Press last month showed Biden with a sizeable lead among likely Michigan voters who were extremely concerned (Biden 82%-Trump 9%) or somewhat concerned (Biden 53%-Trump 34%) about coronavirus. Trump led 77%-9% among the third of voters who had little or no concern.
Ron Fournier, a former White House reporter and Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press who covered politics for 35 years and now serves as president of Detroit-based communications firm Truscott Rossman, said he wishes the president and first lady a swift recovery but believes Trump has acted abominably in his downplaying the severity of the virus and suggesting the election will be corrupted before it is even held.
“I have a very hard time finding any rosy scenario (for Trump’s campaign) here,” he said. “What this does is bring the coronavirus back square into the campaign. He’s been trying so hard… to distract us from the fact that his policies have led to the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans. Now, he can’t run away form from coronavirus because the call is coming from inside the house. It’s like that old horror movie… I don’t see how this is good for him and I don’t see how it’s good for the country… This is an unmitigated disaster and it’s on his hands.”
Contact Todd Spangler at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @tsspangler. Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter. Staff writer Dave Boucher contributed to this report.
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