Talking about the COVID Patient in Chief

Recent events and polling offer a roadmap to talking about a sick, erratic President

Conor Sen, a Bloomberg News columnist, tweeted the question that we were all quietly wondering:

The actual answer to Conor’s rhetorical question is Trump and the Republicans would stop using every legal shenanigan possible to make it as hard as possible to vote. But I digress.

Conor’s question was prompted by an absurd series of self-destructive events that occurred over the last couple of days as the Trump generated COVID outbreak continued to metastasize throughout the Republican Party and the Federal Government. In a short period of time, we went from Trump contracting COVID to Trump going to the hospital to Trump’s doctors lying about his health to Trump putting Secret Service agents at risk for a pointless photo op to Trump leaving Walter Reed hospital for the hospital at the White House where an enfeebled, panting President put the White House staff at risk while he filmed a mask-less propaganda video. As if that wasn’t enough, Trump woke up on Tuesday morning lied about the lethality of the flu and then instructed Congressional Republicans to stop trying to pass a relief package for people affected by the virus he couldn’t contain and the recession he won’t fix in order to focus on confirming a Supreme Court Justice in time to kick millions off their health care.

It’s easy to dunk on the obvious incompetence of our very weak President on Twitter and it’s enjoyable to rant about it in a newsletter (trust me), but how do we turn this incompetent chaos into more votes for Democrats up and down the ballot? And how much freedom do we have to press our case while the President is sick and much of the Federal Government — including all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — are quarantined or incapacitated? This is the question that everyone in Democratic politics from Joe Biden down to the folks trying to persuade their friends and family is currently wrestling with. And it’s the question that Kamala Harris is going to have to navigate at the debate tonight.

Pushing on an Open Door

There have been a handful of polls conducted since Trump announced that he had COVID and all of them are very bad news for Trump. A CNN poll conducted mostly after Trump’s diagnosis found Biden leading Trump by an astounding 16 points. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that the CNN poll is an outlier. But there is ample evidence that Trump’s erratic behavior since contracting COVID has shifted the race against him.

Biden also led by 16 points in the interviews conducted after Trump was hospitalized in a Survey USA poll. Other polling has found Biden nearly tied in the very red state of Missouri and down only 18 points in West Virginia. The West Virginia poll sounds like bad news, but Biden is doing 24 points better than Hillary Clinton who lost the state by 42 points in 2016. There are also numerous reports about Republican campaigns around the country panicking after seeing big swings in their polling over the last few days.

This may all be temporary. The polling tends to shift against Trump when he acts the craziest during very serious times, but it does dispense with the notion that there will be a sympathy boost for an ill President.

Data is essential, but sometimes commonsense is sufficient. The idea that the voters that overwhelming disapprove of Trump’s approach to COVID would rally to his cause because he got COVID was absurd. Trump essentially got hit by a car while repeatedly running into traffic days after making fun of people that look both ways before crossing the street. Trump’s behavior before and after his diagnosis is the height of irresponsibility and emblematic of his entire approach to the pandemic that has killed 210,000 Americans.

Trump is currently paying a steep political price for his conduct. How can we make it stick for the next 27 days?

Messages that Work

The irresponsible actions that gave Trump COVID and his erratic, bizarre response since is a chance to make the final sale to that last group of voters sitting on the fence. Based on some of the public and private polling I have seen in the last week, here is some guidance on how to talk about the COVID Patient in Chief.

  1. Sympathy is Nice, but Unnecessary: The correct political move is probably to offer words of sympathy to the President prior to a critique. It is the nice thing to do even though he doesn’t deserve an ounce of sympathy. Those sympathetic words, however, may be a good entry point into conversations with voters that remain conflicted about Trump and skeptical of Democrats. But, internal Democratic polling shared with me in recent days showed no backlash to messaging that was highly critical of Trump and messages that included a sympathetic statement did no better than messages without one. No need to twist yourself into a pretzel to be nice to someone that has never been nice to anyone in their life.

  2. It’s About Trump’s Failure to Protect Us, Not Him: Trump’s irresponsible personal behavior is a microcosm of his approach to the Federal government’s response to the virus. Therefore, our messaging should use his personal situation as a jumping off point into a conversation about his failure to protect the country. Here’s a possible message to use in talking about Trump contracting COVID:

    If the most powerful person in the world can get Covid, then none of us are safe. Donald Trump has no plan to combat the virus, ignores the advice of scientists like Dr. Fauci, continues to downplay the disease, and makes fun of people who wear masks. We need a leader like Joe Biden that listens to scientists, takes the virus seriously, and has a plan to protect us.

    This digital ad from the Biden campaign brilliantly and succinctly highlights how his approach to the virus differs from Trump’s. It’s a good one to share with the folks in your network.

  3. Signs of Weakness: One theory among political operatives and pollsters about Trump’s post-COVID swoon is that Trump’s wannabe “strong man” image took a hit because he was too weak and incompetent to protect himself. Therefore, we should be layering our messages about Trump with words like “weak,” “incompetent,” and “feeble.” To be clear, a person contracting COVID isn’t a sign of weakness, unless it happens because they were too insecure to wear a mask.

    The more we poke holes into the image of Trump as a “strong man”, the harder it will be for him to make a comeback down the stretch. Trump recognizes this (although perhaps not much else). It’s why he recorded that absurd propaganda video and insisted on returning to the Oval Office to work despite putting dozens of people at risk of contracting the virus. Trump would rather look strong than responsible — as if that was a binary choice. As always it is important to frame these actions as the work of desperate, weak man in danger of losing an election.

  4. Wrong Priorities: Among the many, many crazy things Trump has done in the last few days, perhaps the craziest (which is saying A LOT) was breaking off negotiations on a COVID Relief bill and instructing Republicans to instead focus on confirming a Supreme Court Justice. If your gut told you that voters were more interested in fixing the economy than confirming a Justice that promises to kick people of their health insurance in a pandemic, congrats. A poll from The Hill/HarrisX found that 74 percent of voters want Congress to pass a COVID relief bill before confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Trump made a grave political error. We can make him pay a commensurate political price by hammering him for preferring to overturn the Affordable Care Act over helping the unemployed, small businesses, and essential workers.

  5. Plan Beats No Plan: Trump has no plan to contain COVID in his own White House let alone the nation. Here’s one way to make that case based on polling I have seen in recent days:

    The Trump administration has no plan to contain the virus that has killed 210,000 Americans. They have been so incompetent that there here are now more positive cases of people infected with COVID in the Trump White House than there are in New Zealand, Taiwan, and Vietnam combined.

    Trump not having a plan is only half the message battle. Joe Biden has a plan — it’s a good one. But we need people to know about it. More information on Biden’s plan can be found here. This graphic from my friends at Crooked Media is great for sharing on Instagram and elsewhere

No one knows what will happen next in this insane campaign. The Presidential debate was a week ago and Trump’s tax returns were revealed only ten days ago. Both feel like they happened a lifetime ago, but the latest events have ensured that at least for the time being the focus is on COVID — Trump’s worst issue. We don’t know how long it will remain that way, but there is an opportunity to persuade as many voters as possible while it does. People are voting right now, so this is a chance to close the deal.