'The virus is kind of tough to talk down': Trump can't shake Covid in final sprint

By David Siders and Steven Shepard
·7 min read

Donald Trump had one final blitz across the battlegrounds to turn the presidential race into something other than a referendum on his handling of the coronavirus.

But the pandemic is spiking in swing states just as the election nears. Public health officials are linking Trump’s signature rallies to the virus’ spread. And Trump — dismissing the pandemic’s severity in new and attention-grabbing ways — keeps stepping on any other closing argument for a second term.

Two days before the election, the president who spent months trying to distance himself from the coronavirus simply couldn’t get out of its way. And his three-day, 14-rally sprint to the finish has served primarily as a rolling reminder of a pandemic that is mangling the final days of his campaign.

“The virus is kind of tough to talk down,” said Doug Gross, a Republican operative who was a chief of staff to former Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa, a virus-ravaged state where Trump campaigned Sunday. “Too many people have died. Too many people have gotten sick.”

Rallying supporters in Michigan and Iowa on Sunday, Trump sought to reframe the race in terms that are more favorable to his re-election, primarily around the economy, Joe Biden’s politics and Biden’s son Hunter. Trump complained last week about the media that “all they want to talk about is Covid.”

But it was Trump himself who proved unable to repair — or at least deflect attention from — the disconnect between his view of the virus and the electorate’s .

Trump’s claim Friday that “doctors get more money if someone dies from Covid” drove headlines throughout the weekend, with a senior adviser, Jason Miller, amplifying the baseless accusation Sunday. The White House picked a fight over the weekend with Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert whose public approval rating on the virus is far better than the president’s. And on a frigid day in Michigan on Sunday — one day after the state recorded a record number of new coronavirus cases — Trump said again that the country is “rounding the turn.”

That’s not an assessment shared by voters who will decide Trump’s fate on Tuesday. Fifty-five percent of registered voters say the worst of the coronavirus is yet to come, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll released Sunday.

“I think the polling is picking up everything, which is that the pandemic is overwhelmingly the most important issue facing the country,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster. “And right now, that’s not helpful to the president.”

The polling overall is grim for Trump, especially because it's increasingly predictive as the election draws closer, with an overall lack of movement spelling disaster for the president. More than 92 million ballots have already been cast nationwide, according to the United States Elections Project.

Biden’s lead was holding steady nationally and in several swing states amid the final weekend of campaigning before Election Day. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll showed the former vice president 10 points ahead of the incumbent among registered voters.

In the states, polls from ABC News/Washington Post and New York Times/Siena College gave Biden mid-single-digit leads over Trump in the critical battleground of Pennsylvania, which is seen by both parties as the state most likely to tip the Electoral College one way or the other.

On balance, state polling suggests Biden is as well-positioned at the end of the campaign as he has been for much of the race. More New York Times/Siena College polls in Arizona and Wisconsin show leads for Biden, including an 11-point advantage in Wisconsin. A poll conducted for a number of media outlets in Michigan showed Biden ahead by 7 points. CNN polls released Saturday put Biden up 12 percentage points in Michigan, 8 points in Wisconsin, 6 points in North Carolina and 4 points in Arizona.

There are bright spots for Trump. Polling in the largest swing state, Florida, points to yet another photo finish there: Biden led by 3 points in a New York Times/Siena College poll, while Trump was up 2 points in an ABC News/Washington Post survey.

And then there was Saturday’s Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll in Iowa, which fueled Republicans’ hopes that Trump could again romp through the Upper Midwest — and boosted the GOP’s spirits about protecting its embattled Senate majority. As it did in 2016, the Register poll showed Trump leading the state by 7 points. Four years ago, that poll presaged an otherwise unexpected Trump surge throughout the Rust Belt, which led to his narrow victory.

But this year, there is greater evidence on the other side of the ledger suggesting Biden’s lead is more secure than Hillary Clinton’s in the final weekend. It was a sign of Trump’s difficulties that he was compelled to spend time on Sunday in Iowa and Georgia. Trump won Iowa by 9 percentage points four years ago — a wider margin than he mustered in Texas — and Georgia hasn’t gone for a Democrat for president since 1992.

Biden, meanwhile, is expanding his battleground map with plans to travel Monday to Ohio, a state Trump won by about 8 percentage points four years ago. The visit a day before Election Day is yet another sign of the extent of Trump’s erosion in the Midwest. The FiveThirtyEight polling average has Trump ahead of Biden by less than 1 percentage point in the state.

Campaigning at Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon, Biden lacerated Trump for his handling of the virus, pledging that if elected, he would “act to get Covid under control.”

“It’s almost criminal the way he has handled it,” Biden said.

In the final weekend, Trump was not without opportunities to shift the narrative away from the coronavirus. He touted the Commerce Department’s report last week that the economy had rebounded in the third quarter, complaining Sunday that “the fake news hardly makes it a story.” The previous day, he announced that the U.S. military had rescued an American kidnapped in Niger, the kind of victory that has had an impact in past elections.

But Trump could hardly travel anywhere over the weekend without the virus following him. The United States surpassed 9 million coronavirus cases on Friday, with the virus ravaging much of the country. The swing states of Michigan and Iowa, which Trump visited Sunday, are posting record levels of cases. So is Pennsylvania, where Trump campaigned on Saturday, and Minnesota, where he went the day before. In Arizona, where Donald Trump Jr. was campaigning Sunday, the virus is again on the rise.

“His mendacity has just been appalling through a number of issues,” said Bob Firth, a lifelong Republican who voted for Trump in 2016, but who is now part of a group of Arizona Republicans for Biden. “Most recently with the whole Covid-19 mismanagement, just totally ignoring what science tells you to do has directly led to a huge number of issues in this country. It’s going to be a long winter thanks to him.”

In fact, Trump’s rallies appear to be contributing to the virus’ spread. Public health officials in Minnesota have linked more than 20 cases of the virus to Trump campaign events in the state. Stanford University researchers on Friday released findings that estimated 30,000 coronavirus infections and more than 700 deaths nationwide may have been caused by Trump’s rallies, which draw large, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of people typically not wearing masks.

On Sunday, Trump told supporters in Michigan that Biden is “all about lockdowns” and he told supporters that “the Biden plan is to imprison you in your home.”

His most fervent supporters cheered Trump at that rally. But the message is not resonating more broadly. According to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, a plurality of voters — 47 percent — said what they have seen, read or heard about Trump in recent weeks have given them a less favorable impression of him.

Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report