Looking ahead to November, President Trump now finds himself in an unenviable position for an incumbent. The clock has struck midnight, and Trump's heavily-stimulated growth-oriented economy has turned into a pumpkin, so to speak. Looking back over the last half-century, two one-term presidents offer obvious comparisons: George HW Bush, and Jimmy Carter.
Trump knows that being remembered as an ineffectual one-termer like Carter would almost be worse than never having won the presidency in the first place. Fortunately, unlike his two predecessors mentioned above, Trump has accomplished something unique: He's made wariness of China a major pillar of American foreign policy, giving the US a nation-state foe for the first time since the years following 9/11. And the obvious parallels make a comparison to the Soviet Union sound more appropriate. Trump's claim last night that the coronavirus is the worst attack on the US since Pearl Harbor appeared to resonate not only with Trump's base, but with the crucial swing voters in the Midwest and elsewhere. Without them, Trump is doomed. And as it turns out, they have more trust in Trump to lead the economy back to growth and confront China, than they do in Joe Biden.
Using these data as a guide, Trump's campaign team has crafted a two-pronged message that they believe will resonate particularly well in the Swing States this fall.
Several Trump aides say their 2020 campaign will now be chiefly defined by two themes: Trump is the only candidate who can resurrect the economy and that Biden will not be as tough on China, a country Trump is blaming for the pandemic.
It is a message resonating with Trump’s base, according to interviews with more than 50 voters in three swing counties in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin - states Trump won in 2016 by less than a percentage point and that will decide whether he can win a second term.
Because the inescapable truth is: No matter how many times progressive blue checks insist that referring to SARS-CoV-2 as the "Wuhan Virus" is "racist", and that the intensity of the outbreak is entirely Trump's fault, most Americans blame China for unleashing the virus on the world, and rightfully so.
This "new messaging" on Chin is being circulated to Republican leaders around the country so everybody can get on the same page .
Trump officials say the new messaging, being sent to Republican state leaders across the country and pushed in new anti-Biden ads across swing states, reflects internal and external polling data that shows voters trust Trump more on the economy, and that Americans across party lines distrust China.
"Voters know China was a bad actor on the virus. The president made clear to pinpoint China as the origin of the virus,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s spokesman. "We’re going to push this."
Whereas the Biden campaign's message is far more muddy: essentially, it relies on blaming Trump for the coronavirus, something that's simply not going to fly with Trump's base and many swing voters, who have been primed to be suspicious of China since Trump first started rising in the polls during the 2016 GOP primary..
TJ Ducklo, Biden’s campaign spokesman, described Trump’s response to the crisis as a “disaster.” He accused Trump of being “duped” by China earlier this year and pointed to the fact that Trump heaped praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s handling of the outbreak during January and February.
"This election will be a referendum on Donald Trump’s historic failures as president," Ducklo said.
One swing voter who says he voted for Obama twice before picking Trump in 2016 told Reuters that he would "definitely" trust Trump more than Biden when it comes to dealing with the Chinese.
“I definitely want Trump fighting against China rather than Biden, by far,” said Engelmann, 50, who works for a food distribution company in Racine County, Wisconsin.
But Republicans can still screw it all up - which is why disseminating the nuanced talking points is important. As Llyod Blankfein explained earlier, those who frame their reopening arguments around concepts like individual liberty or economic blowback risk sounding unbelievably callous. And any hint that the virus is "a hoax" risks reviving accusations of denialism that will inevitably resonate with those who have lost loved ones to the virus.
Lee Snover, head of the Republican Party in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, recently lost her father to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and could not be at his deathbed. She said Republicans needed to be careful about going too far in criticizing the economic shutdown and dismissing the health risks.
"Yes, we need to reopen the economy, but we also need to recognize that the virus is real and poses a threat."
With unemployment likely headed to the highest level since the Great Depression (something that might not necessarily be fully reflected in the data), polls suggest that voters trust Trump to create jobs more than they trust Biden. And of course, Biden's shady business dealings involving China certainly don't help.
In the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted Monday and Tuesday, 45% of Americans said Trump would be better at creating jobs, compared with 32% who thought Biden would be better at it.
Trump’s campaign aides also see rising anger with China over the coronavirus as an opening. Trump in recent weeks has ramped up his criticism of Beijing and threatened new tariffs on China, and officials said they were considering retaliatory measures against China over the outbreak.
A Pew Research Center survey in late April showed two-thirds of Americans viewed China unfavorably now, up 20 points since the start of the Trump administration in January 2017.
Starting next week, messaging on China will be sent to Republican state party officials, accusing China of costing American lives and that “Joe Biden is good for China but bad for America,” one campaign aide said.
Still, public frustration is high. Just like they did in 2016, the Dems have fielded an elderly white candidate who does little to inspire the party's base (though Biden is probably a better politician than Hillary Clinton, his performance so far suggests that he has cognitive abilities have deteriorated since he left office (or at least since the last time he was up on a debate stage in 2012).
Trump still needs to convince these voters that he can be - as many have said - a "uniter" and overcome the partisan gridlock in Washington to actually get things done.
Duane Miller, 82, a Northampton County resident who voted for Trump in 2016, said he was sickened by how both parties had politicized the coronavirus crisis.
“If I had to vote today – and I’ve been voting for decades – I probably would not even vote.”
Playing the blame game and picking petty fights with the press make Trump seem less like a dignified leader and more like a petulant child. Trump must inspire confidence that he can step up and lead when times get tough.